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8 Natural Ways to Protect Your Skin From Sun and Bugs

author image Ginger Hultin
Ginger Hultin is a Chicago-based writer and dietitian specializing in oncology, fitness, supplements and plant-based nutrition. She holds Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of Washington and a Master of Science in Nutrition from naturopathic Bastyr University.

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8 Natural Ways to Protect Your Skin From Sun and Bugs

Protecting your skin from the sun and bugs often means lathering yourself lotions and sprays. The sun’s rays can damage skin and cause early aging and cancer, and insect bites are not only uncomfortable, but they’re increasingly associated with disease. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, one out of five people will be diagnosed with skin cancer in their lifetime; they suggest using a broad-spectrum water-resistant sunscreen of SPF 30 or higher. Dermatologists recommend using an ounce of sunscreen to cover the entire body before sun exposure. Though proper sunscreen is considered the front line in skin protection, there are many natural products -- both oral and topical -- that have been shown to assist with protecting the skin from the sun as well as repelling insects. Read on for more information about how to protect your skin!

1. Seaweed
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Japanese researchers have found evidence that the antioxidants in some edible seaweed can help protect skin from developing wrinkles when exposed to ultraviolet B (UVB) light. UVB radiation is the wave frequency that causes the majority of skin reddening and sunburn. A 2011 animal study suggested that using an antioxidant derived from seaweed topically reduced cancer-causing markers. The antioxidant fucoxanthin is found in brown seaweed varieties and is a type of carotenoid, which is a class of plant pigment that offers health benefits. Because seaweed needs to protect itself from UV radiation damage as it grows in a marine environment, researchers believe that this protection may transfer to humans who consume it or use it topically.

Related: The 30 Safest Sunscreens and 3 to Avoid

2. Tomatoes
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Like seaweed, tomatoes also contain antioxidants in the carotenoid family. Studies call carotenoids “photoprotectant,” meaning they contain a compound that helps living organisms combat damage caused by the ultraviolet light from the sun. McKenzie Hall, RD, co-founder of the company Nourish RDs, explains: “Tomatoes provide the important antioxidant lycopene -- the plant compound that gives tomatoes their rich red hue -- which has been linked to protection of the skin from UV damage in several studies. Something particularly fascinating about tomatoes is that cooking them makes lycopene even more bioavailable to your body. That’s why you could be doing your body so much good by incorporating canned varieties of tomatoes or other tomato products, such as salsa or tomato sauce, in your recipes.” There are studies showing that lycopene supplementation ranging from eight to 16 milligrams daily, including eating tomatoes or tomato paste, showed some protection against sunburn during UV exposure.

Related: 10 Foods That Make You Look Good And Feel Better

3. Celery
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Some studies have been done on celery seed extracts worn topically, but, unfortunately, eating celery does not seem to protect against mosquito bites. A 2004 study found that topical application of celery extract provided three hours of mosquito bite protection and was well tolerated on the skin and didn’t cause irritation. Multiple studies have shown that topical celery extract worked comparably to DEET and has been studied in tropical environments like Thailand as a mosquito repellant. Note that the studies have been done with topical applications, so eating celery probably will not help repel insects. But celery is a very healthful food and can be cooling, so be sure to include it for other health reasons.

Related: The 30 Safest Sunscreens and 3 to Avoid

4. Beta-Carotene
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Beta-carotene is found in orange veggies like pumpkin, squash and sweet potato and fruits like apricot and cantaloupe. It accumulates in the skin of people who consume it at higher levels. Beta-carotene supports the immune system and our eyes, but it’s also been shown to protect our skin against redness and sensitivity to radiation damage from the sun and to possibly protect against premature aging, including wrinkles, pigmentation, dryness and inelasticity. Beta-carotene works differently than topical sunscreen; it provides less potent protection and works by building up in the system over several weeks instead of incorporating immediately. Supplement doses ranging from 25 milligrams all the way up to 180 milligrams for 10 to 12 weeks has been shown to reduce skin redness after sun exposure. Keep in mind that studies have not shown a benefit in skin cancer prevention or skin pigmentation protection from taking beta-carotene.

Related: 10 Foods That Make You Look Good And Feel Better

5. Green Tea
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The antioxidant in green tea called catechin has been shown to protect against inflammation associated with sunburn and UV damage. In a small human study in which participants were given 540 milligrams of green tea catechin combined with 50 milligrams of vitamin C for 12 weeks, researchers saw a significant decrease in redness after ultraviolet exposure. Another study in which participants consumed a green tea drink containing 1,402 milligrams of catechin for 12 weeks also saw an improvement in the redness associated with sun exposure. Be sure to stay hydrated and include green tea in your diet, but proper skin protection with sun block remains the best bet to prevent sunburn.

Related: The 30 Safest Sunscreens and 3 to Avoid

6. Natural and Essential Oils
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Studies show that lemon eucalyptus oil and other plant oils, such as lavender, citronella, geranium, cinnamon, turmeric, sandalwood, cedar wood and soybean may be potential nontoxic alternatives for DEET (short for the chemical N,N-diethyl-meta-toluamide), which is found in bug sprays to prevent insect bites from mosquitoes and ticks. Older studies have shown that, though lemon eucalyptus oil is slightly less effective than DEET, that essential oils may still work relatively well as repellants. Because essential oils are volatile, or short-lived, their protection is most potent the first hour of application. To avoid potentially dangerous exposure to disease through bug bites, be sure to wear protective clothing and avoid infested habitats as a foundation of preventing insect bites.

Related: 10 Foods That Make You Look Good And Feel Better

7. Melatonin
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Melatonin is a hormone largely made in the body by the pineal gland (found in the brain), which helps us sleep. Some people use melatonin orally as a sleep aid or for adjusting to time change when traveling. Research now shows that melatonin is present in other parts of the body, including the skin. There is evidence that topical melatonin plays a role in helping protect skin against UV radiation and other environmental stress through antioxidant activity. Many of the studies done on melatonin for sun protection are done in conjunction with other topical antioxidant vitamins like E and C. Be sure to talk to your doctor before starting a product like melatonin to be sure it is not interacting with other medications you may take.

Related: The 30 Safest Sunscreens and 3 to Avoid

8. Vitamins C and E
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Plants can protect themselves from UV sun damage through the presence of antioxidants, particularly vitamins C and E found in leaves and stalks. When used topically in humans or animals, research has shown that a combination of these vitamins provides some protection against the redness and damage from sun exposure. Taking vitamin C and E together orally has shown some reduction of redness from ultraviolet rays as well. In addition, vitamin C used topically with vitamin E and melatonin had similar positive results when applied prior to UV exposure (but not during or after). You can stock up on vitamin C by eating red bell peppers, strawberries, broccoli, papaya and pineapple among many other fresh fruits and vegetables. Sunflower seeds, almonds, spinach, Swiss chard and avocado are good sources of vitamin E. Because the best benefit is observed with intake of these compounds prior to sun exposure, be sure to include these types of foods in your diet on a regular basis.

Related: 10 Foods That Make You Look Good And Feel Better

9. Bug Repellent Myths
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There are a lot of myths about bug-repelling foods circulating that are not yet backed by science. Natural Medicines Database lists both garlic and B vitamins in the “Possibly Ineffective” category. There have been small studies done on 1,500 milligrams of garlic extract (allium sativum) capsules, which shows a modest improvement in the number of tick bites in the intervention group. An expert review of the evidence for insect bite avoidance published in the Journal of Travel Medicine found DEET and IR353, another chemical repellant, had the highest efficacy. They also reviewed products previously mentioned in this article, such as lemon eucalyptus and other essential and vegetable oils, finding some efficacy there. However, this review also states “garlic and vitamin B must never be suggested as a natural method of bite prevention.”

Related: The 30 Safest Sunscreens and 3 to Avoid

10. Best Bets for Skin Health
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While there is supporting research on certain plant compounds, antioxidants and oils to prevent sun damage and protect against bug bites, this does not discredit the importance of using sun block and insect repellant when needed. Dr. Emily Arch of Dermatology and Aesthetics of Wicker Park in Chicago gives professional skin care advice for: “Skin cancer can be deadly, but by practicing good sun protective habits, you can reduce your risk of both melanoma and nonmelanoma skin cancers as well as signs of aging. Choose a sunscreen that protects your skin from both UVA and UVB radiation, and remember to reapply at least every two hours -- more often if you are sweating or swimming. Hats, sunglasses and sun-protective clothing also provide excellent protection, especially for infants too young to use sunscreen. Avoidance of the sun between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. helps prevent exposure to the most intense UV radiation of the day.”

Related: 10 Foods That Make You Look Good And Feel Better

What Do YOU Think?
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What is your experience with skin health? Have you found any foods or natural products that work for you? Are there other tips that you think we should have included? Let us know in the comments below!

Related: The 30 Safest Sunscreens and 3 to Avoid

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