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Sun and Skin

Sun and Skin

Most of us love to get out in the sunshine and a tan makes us feel great but what are the benefits and risks? 

 Skin cells respond to sunlight by producing melanin, the brown pigment responsible for your tan which protects your skin by absorbing the damaging energy from ultraviolet rays (UV-R).  We all need a little bit of sunshine to make vitamin D which is vital for healthy bones and prevention against degenerative diseases.  A study published in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology shows that vitamin D can also protect skin cells against damage from UV-R.  But with statistics for skin cancer on the up it seems clear that skin cells need additional protection, which is where good nutrition can make a difference.

According to Cancer Research UK, 10,400 people in the UK are diagnosed with skin cancer each year and shockingly, numbers have quadrupled since the 1970’s!  Experts believe the increase in foreign travel along with burning as a child and poor immunity are all contributory factors.  So the message about skin protection has been pretty clear and well received as many of us now smear ourselves and our children from top to toe in high factor SPF.  Which poses the question, why are statistics still on the increase?

Alarmingly, unless a sun cream is “broad spectrum”, it only protects against UVB, meaning it’s unlikely to protect against UVA responsible for melanoma (the most serious form of skin cancer).  There is speculation as to whether ingredients in sun creams are harmful.  Last year, the Australian government reviewed the scientific literature on the safety of two main mineral filters, titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, which together filter UVA and UVB, giving the broadest protection availabl.  The Australians concluded that both ingredients remained on the very outer layer of the skin and did not cause damage.

However, there is some horrifying evidence which highlights ingredients like para-aminobenzoic acid (PABA), phenylbenzimidazole (PBI), octocrylene and octylmethoxycinnamote, found in some sun creams which actually increase melanoma by damaging skin cells.

Fortunately there is substantial evidence revealing a number of dietary factors and nutrients to be of great benefit for skin protection.  Mediterranean countries have low levels of melanoma rates yet their UV rays are intense.  The answer could be their diet of colourful fruits and vegetables full of antioxidants, vitamins and minerals, phytochemicals and omega-9 and -3 fatty acids.  Antioxidants have been shown to protect the skin by counteracting free radicals caused by sun exposure.  These nutrients are more powerful in synergy which may explain why the Mediterranean diet is so protective.

Some studies reveal that sun damage can be reduced by following a diet that is high in omega-9 (olive oil) and omega-3 (oily fish) fatty acids and dietary antioxidants such as carotenoids, vitamin C, E, selenium, flavonoids, and polyphenols whilst low in red meat, saturated fat and dairy.

Carotenoids such as beta-carotene, lutein and lycopene, found in red/orange/yellow fruits and vegetables, are particularly effective.  William Stahl, a German scientist, has shown that carotenoids, when eaten habitually over a long period protect against sunburn and increase the skin’s capacity to reflect UV rays, improving skin protection.  Studies also link beta-carotene with reduced risk of melanoma and reveal lutein to protect the skin against UVB.

Lycopene, found abundantly in tomatoes, is potent at combating free-radical damage from both UVA and UVB rays.  In one trial, Stahl gave his subjects 3 tablespoons of tomato paste combined with 2 teaspoons of olive oil every day for a period of 10 weeks and results showed a 40% reduction in sunburn.

Flavonoids found in green tea, black tea and citrus fruits, along with polyphenols found in grape seeds, red wine and cocoa, may be chemopreventive against cancers caused by UV rays.  Surprisingly, a recent American population-based study showed regular tea consumption may reduce the risk of non-melanoma cancer.  Yet another American study showed that citrus peel with black tea significantly protected against non-melanoma cancer.  Cocoa and green teas have similar effects, reducing sunburn by 15 to 25%.

Vitamins and minerals can help too!

Dermatologists in Germany discovered that supplementing with vitamin E and C protected against sun damage.  Selenium also protects against melanoma by working synergistically with antioxidant enzymes catalase, superoxide dismutase (SOD) and glutathione peroxidise.

If you do get sunburnt then choose an Aloe vera after-sun.  In 2008, an investigation compared the anti-inflammatory potential of Aloe vera gel and hydrocortisone placebo gel on sunburn.  Interestingly, the authors concluded that Aloe vera had superior results.

So if you want to enjoy the summer sun, remember to eat a Mediterranean rainbow diet, particularly high in tomato salads and use ample olive oil.  Eat plenty of oily fish and cut down on red meat and dairy.  Drink tea infused with lemon peel and consider supplementing with an antioxidant formula.

Use a natural chemical-free high-factor SPF with titanium dioxide and zinc oxide for broad spectrum UV protection.  Look also for sun creams containing antioxidants such as beta-carotene, green tea and vitamin E.  Don’ forget your Aloe vera after-sun!

Top Tips

•     Drink citrus-infused green or black tea

•      Drizzle tomato salads with plenty of olive oil

•     Use lots of tomato puree in your cooking

•     Enjoy yellow, orange and red fruits and vegetables

•      Eat lots of oily fish instead of red meat

•     Drink red wine instead of white wine or beer

•     Supplement with Vitamin E, C, beta-carotene, selenium, grape seed extract, lutein and lycopene.


Australian Government, Department of Health and Ageing (2009) A review of the scientific literature on the safety of nanoparticulate titanium dioxide or zinc oxide in sunscreens.  Accessed:, 29th April 2010.

Bain C, Green A, Siskind V, Alexander J, Harvey P (1993) Diet and melanoma.  An exploratory case-control study.  Annals of Epidemiology, 3(3): 235-8.  [Online – abstract only] PubMed (  Accessed: 29th April 2010

Cancer Research UK (2008) Melanoma skin cancer.   Accessed:  25th April 2010.

Eberlein-Konig B, Placzek M, Przybilla B (1998) Protective effect against sunburn of combined systemic ascorbic acid (vitamin C) and d-alpha-tocopherol (vitamin E).  Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, 38(1): 45-8.  [Online – abstract only] PubMed (  Accessed: 28th April 2010.

D’Angelo S, Ingrosso D, Migliardi V, Sorrentino A, Donnarumma G, Baroni A, Masella L, Tufano MA, Zappia M, Galletti P (2005) Hydroxytyrosol, a natural antioxidant from olive oil, prevents protein damage induced by long-wave ultraviolet radiation in melanoma cells.  Free Radical Biology & Medicine, 38(7): 908-19.  [Online – abstract only] PubMed (  Accessed: 29th April 2010.

Gupta R, Dixon KM, Deo SS, Holliday CJ, Slater M, Halliday GM, Reeve VE, Mason RS (2007) Photoprotection by 1,25 dihydroxyvitamin D3 is associated with an increase in p53 and a decrease in nitric oxide products.  Journal of investigative dermatology, 127: 707-715.  [Online] PubMed (  Accessed: 28th April 2010

Hakim IA, Harris RB (2001) Joint effects of citrus peel use and black tea intake on the risk of squamous cell carcinoma of the skin.  BMC Dermatology, 2001;1:3.  [Online] PubMed (  Accessed: 29th April 2010.

Heinrich U, Neukam K, Tronnier H, Sies H, Stahl W (2006) Long-term ingestion of high flavanol cocoa provides photoprotection against UV-induced erythema and improves skin condition in women.  The Journal of Nutrition, 136(6): 1565-9.  [Online] PubMed (  Accessed: 29th April 2010.

Holick M (2004) Sunlight and vitamin D for bone health and prevention of autoimmune diseases, cancers, and cardiovascular disease.  The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 80(6suppl): 1678S-88S.  [Online] PubMed (  Accessed:  24th April 2010.

Holick MF, Chen TC (2008) Vitamin D deficiency: a worldwide problem with health consequences.  American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 87(4): 1080S-1086S.  [Online] Google Scholar (  Accessed: 24th April 2010

Ibiebele TI, van der Pols JC, Hughes MC, Marks GC, Williams GM, Green AC (2007) Dietary pattern in association with squamous cell carcinoma of the skin: a prospective study.  The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 85(5): 1401-1408.  [Online] PubMed (  Accessed: 27th April 2010

Lee EH, Faulhaber D, Hanson KM, Ding W, Peters S, Kodali S, Granstein RD (2004) Dietary lutein reduces ultra violet radiation-induced inflammation and immunosuppression.  The Journal of Investigative Dermatology, 122(2): 510-7.  [Online] PubMed (  Accessed:  27th April 2010

Kalra N, Roy P, Prasad S, Shukla Y (2008) Resveratrol induces apoptosis involving mitochondrial pathways in mouse skin tumorigenesis.  Life Sciences, 82(7-8): 348-58.  [Online – abstract only] PubMed (  Accessed: 29th April 2010.

Marchand LL, Saltzman BS, Hankin JH, Wilkens LR, Franke AA, Morris SJ, Kolonel LN (2006) Sun exposure, diet, and Melanoma in Hawaii Caucasians.  American Journal of Epidemiology, 164(3): 232-245.  [Online] PubMed (  Accessed: 29th April 2010.

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Offer T, Ames BN, Bailey SW, Sabens EA, Nozawa M, Ayling JE (2007) 5-Methyltetrahydrofolate inhibits photosensitization reactions and strand breaks in DNA.  The FASEB journal, 22(4): 1287.  [Online] Google Scholar (  Accessed: 29th April 2010

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Reuter J, Jocher A, Stump J, Grossjohann B, Franke G, Schempp CM (2008) Investigation of the anti-inflammatory potential of Aloe vera gel (97.5%) in the ultraviolet erythema test.  Skin pharmacology and physiology, 21(2):106-10.  [Online – abstract only] PubMed (  Accessed: 29th April 2010.

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