Protecting your skin from the sun and bugs is important year-round, but especially during the summer. The sun's rays can damage skin and cause early aging and cancer, and insect bites are not only uncomfortable, but they're also associated with disease. According to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), one out of five people will be diagnosed with skin cancer in their lifetime. So they suggest using a broad-spectrum water-resistant sunscreen of SPF 30 or higher.
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. Edible Seaweed
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 suggests that using an antioxidant called fucoxanthin derived from brown seaweed topically reduced cancer-causing markers. Because seaweed needs to protect itself from UV radiation damage as it grows, researchers believe that this protection may transfer to humans who consume it or use it topically.
Like seaweed, tomatoes also contain antioxidants in the carotenoid family. Researchers call carotenoids "photoprotectants," meaning they contain a compound that helps living organisms combat damage caused by the ultraviolet light from the sun. According to McKenzie Hall, RD, co-founder of the company Nourish RDs, tomatoes provide the antioxidant lycopene, which has been linked to protection of the skin from UV damage.
"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." Other research suggests that lycopene supplementation ranging from eight to 16 milligrams daily, including eating tomatoes or tomato paste, showed some protection against sunburn during UV exposure.
Sure, you know you can eat celery, but did you know you can also apply celery extract topically? And that it'll help protect against mosquito bites? Pretty cool! A 2004 study found that topical application of celery extract provided up to three hours of mosquito bite protection and worked comparably to DEET (short for the chemical N,N-diethyl-meta-toluamide).
However, it's important to note that the studies have been done with topical applications only and eating celery probably won't help repel insects. But celery is a very healthy food and can be cooling, so you can definitely still enjoy it for other health reasons.
Beta-carotene is a compound found in orange veggies like pumpkin, squash and sweet potato and fruits like apricot and cantaloupe. It supports the immune system and eyes, but it's also been shown to protect the 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 going to work immediately. Supplement doses ranging from 25 milligrams all the way up to 180 milligrams for 10 to 12 weeks have been shown to reduce skin redness after sun exposure. Keep in mind that studies have not shown a benefit in skin cancer prevention, so you'll still need additional sun protection like sunscreen and clothing.
5. Green Tea
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.
6. Natural and Essential Oils
A 2006 study published in the Journal of Medical Entomology found 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, 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, 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.
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. Researchers now know that melatonin is present in other parts of the body, including the skin.
There's 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 won't interact with other medications you take.
8. Vitamins C and E
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, a 2003 study from the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology found that a combination of these vitamins provides some protection against the redness and damage from sun exposure.
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.
Bug Repellent Myths
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 only 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 New England Journal of 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 concludes that garlic and vitamin B should never be suggested as a natural method of bite prevention.
Don't Forget Sunscreen
While there's supporting research on certain plant compounds, antioxidants and oils to prevent sun damage and protect against bug bites, this doesn't discredit the importance of using sun block and insect repellant when needed. Emily Arch, M.D., of Dermatology and Aesthetics of Wicker Park in Chicago, says, "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."
Read more: The 31 Safest Sunscreens and 3 to Avoid
What Do YOU Think?
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!
- Linus Pauling Institute – Micronutrient/Vitamin A:
- Constitutive and UV-induced metabolism of melatonin in keratinocytes and cell-free systems
- Melatonin and human skin aging
- UV photoprotection by combination topical antioxidants vitamin C and vitamin E.
- Oral green tea catechin metabolites are incorporated into human skin and protect against UV radiation-induced cutaneous inflammation in association with reduced production of pro-inflammatory eicosanoid 12-hydroxyeicosatetraenoic acid.
- Green Tea Polyphenols Provide Photoprotection, Increase Microcirculation, and Modulate Skin Properties of Women.
- Repellency of Oils of Lemon Eucalyptus, Geranium, and Lavender and the Mosquito Repellent MyggA Natural to Ixodes ricinus (Acari: Ixodidae) in the Laboratory and Field
- Comparative Efficacy of Insect Repellents against Mosquito Bites.