Sun exposure increases the production of free radicals in the skin, which have been implicated in sun-induced oxidative damage that causes sunburn and photoaging and may promote skin cancer. The skin contains a variety of antioxidants, including carotenoids and vitamins C and E, which help mop up free radicals. So it’s logical to think that consuming extra antioxidants may offer extra solar protection. And indeed, as a review paper in Frontiers in Medicine in 2018 noted, many studies have found that consuming various antioxidants can help the skin withstand sun damage, at least to a small degree.
Lab research, much of it done in Germany, has shown that certain antioxidants from food or supplements can reduce solar damage to cells. Some human studies also suggest that carotenoids (notably beta carotene) may offer some protection. For instance, in a small German study in the Journal of Nutrition back in 2001, people were fed 1½ ounces of tomato paste (rich in lycopene, another carotenoid) a day for 10 weeks. When exposed to UV rays in a lab, they had 40 percent less skin redness than a control group. Most studies testing vitamin C or E supplements have found that they do not protect against UV, though some suggest that the two combined may act synergistically to help a little.
What you should do
We don’t recommend antioxidant supplements for any purpose. In particular, some studies have found that high-dose beta carotene pills can increase the risk of lung cancer in smokers. Antioxidant-rich plant foods are always a better and safer way to get a wide array of antioxidants, and they may offer some modest protection against sun damage—but they certainly can’t replace sunscreens.
Still, even the best sunscreen, plus all the antioxidants in the world, shouldn’t give you a false sense of security when you’re out in the sun. So minimize sun exposure and wear protective clothing. And eat a diet rich in fruits and vegetables—for the good of your skin as well as the rest of your body.
This article first appeared in the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter.