Beyond sunscreen: protect your skin naturally

Do you use SPF 1000, but still burn?

Pale is the new tan

I’ve certainly been perplexed that no matter how high the SPF on my industrial-strength sunscreen or how diligently I apply it, sometimes I end up a lobster anyway!

A proudly pale gal myself, I am all about protecting my delicate skin!  I’m not a fan of a dark tan and I would rather not turn leathery as I age, yet I also don’t want to slather my body with harmful chemicals while depriving it of the best source of vitamin D.  I’ve long felt that there is something  more to skin protection than sunscreen and that our aggressive approach to sun protection neglects to use our body’s own natural abilities.

This article is all about OTHER ways to protect your skin from the sun and skin cancer, WITHOUT the use of sunscreen!

Dangers of high SPF

This Environmental Working Group (EWG) article What’s Wrong with High SPF? makes some great points:

  • Sunscreens with SPF above 30-50 are fairly pointless
  • High SPF sunscreens still don’t protect well against harmful UVA rays
  • High SPF sunscreens give you a false sense of security
  • Ingredients in high SPF sunscreens pose more health risks

Don’t fall for the hype – just because people want high SPF sunscreens doesn’t mean they are any better!  Remember to make your purchasing decisions based on what’s best for you, not advertising.

Sun protection with nutrition

Did you know that what you eat has a huge effect on whether your skin burns in the sun?  This may be news to you, but it helps to explain why some people burn much more easily than others.

I recently read this short summary from Natural Standard of Integrative Therapies for Sun Protection and Skin Health, and then I delved into some individual studies on nutrients to compile this info.

Which foods and nutrients protect the skin?

  • Lycopene: Tomatoes, red grapefruit, watermelon, guava
  • Carotenoids (such as beta carotene): Dark green and orange coloured veggies, like kale, broccoli, carrots, sweet potatoes
  • Vitamin C: Papaya, pineapple, strawberries, kiwi, bell peppers, broccoli, Brussels sprouts
  • Selenium: Brazil nuts, seafood, turkey, lamb, chicken,Crimini mushrooms, barley, brown rice
  • EGCG (epigallocatechin-3-gallate): green tea is the highest in EGCG, but white tea and oolong tea also contain this nutrient
  • Omega-3 fatty acids, specifically EPA and DHA: fatty fish, such as salmon, mackerel, anchovies, sardines, and herring (acronym = SMASH) are the best sources.

How to eat for skin protection:

  1. Eat 5-6 servings of brightly coloured fruits and vegetables EVERY DAY, emphasizing the specific foods listed above.  Most people are not even close to this, but by making this change you can protect your skin and reduce your risk of chronic diseases like heart disease, cancer, and stroke.  You are better off getting these nutrients from food, since supplementation does not always provide the same benefits, and in some cases can be harmful.
  2. Choose high quality, properly brewed green or white tea, 1-3 cups per day.  I highly recommend brewing loose tea – the flavour and health benefits cannot be matched by most bagged tea, which use the lowest quality tea leaves and may sit on a shelf for years.
  3. Supplement with a quality, molecularly distilled fish oil liquid that provides at least 1000mg combined EPA and DHA (read the label) per day.  I prefer to get even more, so I take 2-3 teaspoons per day of Ascenta Nutrasea+D.

Expose yourself (selectively)

As Canadians, we spend the winter indoors, covered up, and the little sun we do see is pretty weak.  Then, as soon as the temperature is above freezing, we go wild and strip down to nearly naked and gallivant outdoors!  Wait, you don’t do this?

My point is, why are we surprised when our pale, sun-deprived skin gets burnt to a crisp with a little sun?  It’s like going on a bender after avoiding alcohol for months.  Your body is highly adaptable and can build a tolerance if you just give it some time, but don’t expect it to change gears this quickly.

Build up your sun tolerance

A great way to get ready for summer sun is to start venturing outside in the sun for 15-20 minutes per day, exposing as much of your skin as you can (while abiding by public nudity laws), without sunscreen.  Start in the spring, and as the sun gets stronger, your skin will get the message to prepare for summer.

Cover up, especially your noggin

When you’re going to be out in the sun a long time, plan to cover up using a beach umbrella, shady area, clothing, and especially a good sun hat.  While you may think you can handle it, if you are going to spend hours in the sun, your skin will thank you for these simple measures.

I especially emphasize the importance of a nice, wide-brimmed hat that not only protects your head and face, but also your neck and shoulders.  These are the areas that tend to get burned most easily.

Natural SPF

I recently learned that some plant oils provide their own SPF (sun protection factor)!  How exciting!

Plant oils with the highest SPF values:

  • Olive oil = 7.549
  • Coconut oil = 7.119
  • Almond oil = 4.659

Castor oil actually comes in above almond oil with an SPF of 5.687, but if you’ve ever used castor oil, you know that it is not easy nor pleasant to spread all over your body!

While nowhere near the SPF levels of most sunscreens, these oils can help you protect your skin for shorter periods.  Be careful not to rely only on these oils for long periods of time as you may burn.

Make your own sunscreen

Finally, consider making your own sunscreen!  Here are a couple good recipes, and there are lots more if you do some searching online:

Most recipes call for powdered zinc oxide, which is a safe alternative to more harmful active ingredients in commercial sunscreens.  Here are some links to where you can buy zinc oxide powder:


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