Plant Powered Sun Protection Inside & Out

Summertime Sun is not unhealthy! Many are well aware of the necessity of getting sun exposure for the important vitamin D. And now is the time to build your stores of Vitamin D, a fat soluble vitamin that stores well in our fat for the winter months.

With that being said, we want to safely sun bathe, 15-20 minutes per day exposing the skin on your arms and chest or upper body area is where we best absorb the sun’s nutrients. As a daily practice April through November 15-20 minutes of sun bathing or meditation in the sun is recommended.

But what if you want to go out and play in the sun? Yes you will need to protect yourself. Sunscreen? not me. Sunscreen blocks vitamin D absorption, and most sunscreens are loaded with problematic chemical burdens for humans and marine life, such as oxybenzone and nano particles that get in places in our body they are not meant to fit into. The entire state of Hawaii has banned oxybenzone containing sunscreens because it is killing our reefs.

Time to stop the unnecessary slathering of toxic chemicals all over the faces of our babes and of our earth. Good news, nature knows we need sun and we like to play in the sun, so she has provided plants that we can use inside and out that offer some sun protection.

Foods offer sun protection!1

Disclaimer: TEST for SHORT periods of time in the sun on yourself before longer or more intense sun exposures. I combine foods that offer UV protection, along with oils and essential oils that also offer sun protection applied topically, along with light clothing and hats I can take on or off as needed for additional protection.

To be most effective, these foods need to be consumed for 3 months consistently. Eating one meal with lots of sun protective polyphenols, and then going out into the sun expecting to be protected is not going to work. It is more of a lifestyle approach. Many of us are already eating these foods year round, starting early springtime is the time to pay attention to increase the specific foods that offer protection.

The side benefit of using plant nutrients to protect yourself from the sun is that these plant-protective nutrients also fortify our skin inside and out. The colorful pigments in plants are most responsible for the sun protection; beta-carotene and other carotenoids, vitamins C and E, polyphenols, and omega3 rich foods from tidal pool fish and marine life, all nutrients that are also good for high quality skin health. Food containing these nutrients are plentiful, consuming these foods regularly has been shown to delay or prevent sunburns and redness, and reduce signs of skin aging.

Plant chemicals don’t just provide a protective barrier from the sun, they help our body resist the suns damage through reducing several reactive oxygen species (also known as free radicals), decrease oxidative stress and inflammation, and help to prevent damage to collagen and elastin in our skin and protect our DNA.

As we eat, digest and absorb plants the protective compounds from the plants make their way to our epidermis where they protect our skin from the inside. Remember hearing about someone who juiced way too many carrots for too long and their skin turned orange? That orange was actually photoprotecting their skin — though you don’t have to eat that much that you turn orange to get protection, I’m just using the scenario to help you understand how the pigments migrate to our skin.

Carotenoids — specifically beta-carotene and lycopene are the most studied for sun protective benefits as they are found in higher amounts in skin. And its not just the colorful carotenoids that offer protection, there are also colorless carotenoids that offer protection through the absorption of UV rays (phytoene and phytofluene for example). There are even several double blind, random, placebo controlled trials2 supporting this notion. And while many of the studies are done with supplements, there are also studies done with whole foods3 that showed protection. 

So what are the smarty plants that provide sun protection?

  • Tomatoes are the most studied, 
  • Chocolate! Many good reasons to eat organic dark chocolate, it provides a lot  of polyphenols. 
  • Rosemary which seems to be an all around power plant.
  • Coffee and Green tea have also been shown to offer protection due to their polyphenol content. 
  • Coconut oil topically and internally can also be of benefit. Sesame oil resists 30% of UV rays, while coconut, peanut, and olive oils block out about 20%.
  • Tidal pool fish and the fish that eat them

According to Deanna Minnich, PhD4 these are some of the best plant powered foods offering sun protection:

Avocados, carrots, cacao, cruciferous vegetables, goji berries, grapes, leafy greens, oranges, pomegranate, rosemary, sweet potato, green tea, tomatoes, and watermelon. Remember to be effective internal sun protectors these foods need to be eaten long term as part of your daily diet. And they should be, anyway!

Herbs also provide powerful protection5, especially the whole herb more-so than an isolated component due to their complex composition.

I would like to add salmon, and some shellfish to the list as well.

Fish, while not plant foods do also offer sun protection. Especially fish high in astaxanthin, which include shell fish and tidal pool fish. These fish get exposed to the sun in tidal pools and need to protect themselves by making internal chemicals that protect them from the sun. Astaxanthin is a red pigment produced by marine algae when they are stressed, which are then eaten by crustaceans and other sea life giving them the reddish hue. Fish that have red pigment such as salmon or fish with a reddish hue to their shells such as lobster, have higher levels of astaxanthin — and pink flamingos are pink from eating tidal pool fish and the algae which are rich in astaxanthin. Larger fish that eat tidal pool fish will also get the astaxanthin just like us when we eat the fish.

Astaxanthin is a strong antioxidant6. It reduces inflammation, improves immune response, and has been studied to prevent and/or be used as an adjuvant treatment of cardiovascular disease7. Astaxanthin is the Superman of anti-oxidants. Most anti-oxidants combat free radicals 1:1, however astaxanthin comes in and combats multiple free radicals at once. It is a powerhouse antioxidant.

Do you need heroic doses of these foods?

Someone asked me how much of these foods do you need to consume to get the protection? The answer is, its doable.

The studies looked at daily consumption of polyphenols in average adults. Here are some specifics:

One of the cacao studies8 used a 100mL cacao drink, which is less than a 1/2 cup. Length of time it was consumed plays a role in protection and daily consumption shows better results.

One of the studies9 used a 1/2 TBSP of cacao powder for 1 week and showed improved photo protection. 

This study10 just looked at participants who drank coffee and ate a polyphenol rich diet in non-smoking healthy females who expose themselves to the sun.  Those with higher consumption of coffee and polyphenols from all sources found a significant reduction in pigmented spots on the face, a marker for photoaging. 

Studies11, 12, 13 have shown 10-16mg per day of lycopene to be effective, here are the amounts of lycopene in tomato foods:

  • small tomato (2-2/5″) is 2.3 mg
  • medium tomato (2-3/5″) is 3.2 mg
  • large tomato (3″) is 4.7 mg
  • 1 cup of chopped tomatoes is 4.6 mg.

The foods below values are per approx. 4 oz:

  • tomato juice has 9 mg of lycopene per 100g 
  • ketchup has 14.2 mg
  • tomato paste has 7.5 mg
  • sun-dried tomatoes have 46 mg
  • tomato soup has 5.5 mg
  • tomato sauce has 16 mg

Tomato sauce or sun dried tomatoes is by far is the easiest way to consume the most lycopene. It seems cooked tomato products are better at providing the protecting lycopene. 10mg per day of lycopene is not hard to get, lycopene is readily available in guavas, watermelon, grapefruit, papaya, red bell peppers, asparagus, red cabbage, mangoes and many other foods. Eating a variety of these foods daily is the key to better protection.

The first study referenced1 suggested that daily consumption of dietary polyphenols is the best way to infer protection against the harmful effects of solar UV radiation in humans. And the use of these micronutrients in combination —  meaning variety of different plant foods with polyphenols, provides an effective strategy for protecting human skin from damage by UV exposure.

Skin health is an inside-out job.
The lining of your intestines, the epithelium aka your inner skin, is what determines the health of your outer skin. If you are eating inflammatory foods then your inner skin becomes inflamed, when this is chronic such as with daily consumption of fried or sweet and other inflammatory foods it starts to show up on your skin as spots, wrinkles (due to bad food and toxins damaging collagen and elastin), dryness, mutilated DNA, and other imperfections. Inflammaging is the new buzz word. 

It’s not just the food that causes damage, it is also pollution, preservatives, pesticides in the foods, heavy metals, food coloring, and overly processed foods in general that barely resemble a real food. And let’s not forget stress. These all affect your skin health just as much as too much sun.

Recently I came across some studies linking poor skin health to cognitive decline.14  Possibly its the internal inflammation which inflames the skin that also inflames the brain, however if a healthy individual with low levels of inflammation gets sun burned the inflammatory cytokines could increase internally and contribute to oxidative damage body and brain wide. This is why plant based oils are superior to commercial sunscreens because they are not just a barrier, they are anti-inflammatories, which inhibit oxidative stress and 85% of DNA damage induced by UV exposure15.

It is important to protect your skin from UV radiation with natural skin care products made with oils that reduce inflammation and protect skin without the toxicity of commercial sunscreens (which cause inflammation – more coming on this). It is also of utter importance that you protect your inner skin with clean organic foods and vegetables. Not only will the vegetables keep your skin healthier, they will also keep your liver, heart, and other organs healthier!

Skin Microbiome

Our skin microbiome also play a role in protecting us from the sun. Our gut is not the only place beneficial bacteria resides, but also skin, mouth, and other places on the body. The bacteria on our skin help to protect us from sun damage and UV rays. The skin biome is considered a second barrier to the environment.

Quote from this study16:

“…It has been demonstrated that bacterial molecules can block UV rays or reverse their harmful effects. Oral probiotics containing living microorganisms have also shown promising results in restoring skin homeostasis and reversing the negative effects of UV rays. Microbial-based active sunscreen compounds have huge potential for use as next-generation photoprotection products.”

Be careful what you put on your skin you don’t want to strip your skin of microbes — soaps of all types and many body care products disrupt the skin biome. Any product with some version of SLS (sodium lauryl or laureate sulfate) will strip the skin, SLS makes suds, anything that suds strips your skin of beneficial oils and it’s microbiome. You don’t need suds to clean your skin.

Also products containing lye strip your skin. I don’t even use Castile soap on my skin, other than washing my hands. I have not used soap in over 15 years. If I need to use something more than oils I use body scrubs, made with sugar, salt, clay, ground up rose or chamomile buds, oats, sandalwood powder, or citrus peel powder, or any powdered herb or flower. These not only clean the skin, they add additional benefit to the skin.

Oils feed the skin biome improving our skin health in many ways. I mostly use oils to clean my skin, think oil pulling. Oil pulling in the mouth has become popular thanks to Ayurveda, but we can also use oils to pull toxins from the skin just like we do in the mouth.

And there is a double benefit to plant powered oils for your skin — many of them offer SPF and a few of them are quite high SPF.

And while I’m on the topic of showering, after sun exposure you do not want to shower immediately. The suns rays mix with the cholesterol on your skin to make Vitamin D. If you shower immediately after sunning you’ll wash off your Vitamin D.

Topical plant powered sun protection

Time to push back on the cosmetic industry and the FDA to let them know by speaking with your pocketbook that you are no longer interested in toxic sunscreens for humans and marine life. How? With a little research you can experiment with mixing together some oils that have been tested to offer SPF — and I even include oils that have a history of use (along with evidence based research) to protect your skin, such as tamanu oil.

A comment for pondering; Most adults are well aware of the need to protect their skin from burning, so much so that many people rarely go outside without first putting on sunscreen. I would posit that the population in general is well sunscreen-ed, and yet have the rates of skin cancers have steadily increased according to cancer.net17.

While they claim this is because of better diagnosis, more time spent outdoors (really?? I would debate that, the general population is more indoors than ever), and longer lifespan (which are currently decreasing), I would like to put out there it might just be from carcinogenic sunscreens. 

I came across a study18 showing zinc oxide and titanium dioxide react with heat by creating free radicals; aka inflammation. This study stated that zinc oxide (organic) and titanium dioxide (inorganic) are metal oxides that when photo activated generate highly oxidizing radicals and other reactive oxygen species. It goes further to state this reaction breaks down the sunscreens efficacy in a relatively short period of time. Another reason to use anti-inflammatory oils instead of inflammatory sunscreens.

According to studies in pubmed19, most all non-volatile herbal oils (carrier oils) have some SPF as well as many volatile oils (essential oils). In general most carrier oils offer 2-8 SPF and most essential oils offer 1-7 SPF. While this is not high, do we really need that high of an SPF, I remember when I was a teenager and SPF of 4-8 was normally what we used, I was just fine with that. There are specific oils that test in vitro higher for SPF. Raspberry seed oil is the tops testing consistently at 28-50 SPF. Not all oils have been tested to date. As more get tested this list may become quite prolific. Here is a list of some of the oils tested:

Carrier oils SPF

Raspberry seed oil = 28-50 SPF

Pomegranate seed oil = 30 SPF

Wheatgerm oil + Vitamin E = 15 SPF

Avocado oil = SPF 15

Hazelnut = SPF 15

Coconut = SPF 8

Hemp seed oil = 6 SPF 

Macadamia nut oil = 6 SPF

Almond oil = 5 SPF

Sea Buckthorn = 2-4 SPF

Tamanu = 22 SPF (Historically, tamanu oil, a rich luscious green oil was used by the Polynesians to protect the skin and hair from the sun.)

Essential oils SPF

Calendula20 – 8.36 SPF

Peppermint – 7 SPF

Tulsi – 7 SPF (can be quite caustic topically, highly dilute)

Geranium20 – 6.5 SPF

Lavender – 6 SPF

Sweet Orange – 4 SPF

Eucalyptus – 3 SPF

Tea Tree – 2 SPF

Rose – 1 SPF

According to a small company in Vanuatu that makes tamanu oil (Volcanic Earth) “Sc Glucan in Tamanu Oil provides natural UV protection. Sc Glucan protects against UV-induced DNA damage and oxidative stress as a new biological UV filter with a SPF18-22 in ophthalmic uses. This natural UV filter, inhibit 85% of the DNA damage and oxidative stress induced by UV radiation at 1% concentration in opthalmic preparations.”21

They further claim Waterproof Sun Protection Factor 30 (protects against UVa
and UVb). And interestingly, I noticed when I use my sun protection body oil (it is 40% tamanu oil) I don’t reapply it after swimming and I still don’t get sunburn. Perhaps its absorption into the skin provides protection so you don’t need to reapply, or because its an oil that is not water soluble vs. other sunscreen products that are water soluble.

Further research on MDPI found pomegranate and shea butter to be very successful in sunscreens; they replaced some of the zinc oxide and titanium dioxide with pomegranate or shea with good results22.

More on Red Raspberry Seed oil (Rubus Ideaus)

Red Raspberry Seed Oil is a rich source of Omega 3 and Omega 6 essential fatty acids and other antioxidants including Vitamin E, polyphenols and ellagic acid. These natural antioxidants protect from free radicals that are caused by sunlight.

Red raspberry seed oil tested to have broad spectrum (UVa/UVb) protection. This study proved it was comparable to titanium dioxide in its ability to protect skin from the sun23.

The gel from aloe applied topically aids the skin in recovery from being in the sun5.  Aloe blends nicely with oils and hydrosols to make a cooling post sun anti-inflammatory, rehydrating body and facial oil to recover from UV exposure even when not sun burned.

I am currently searching for labs that will test my sun protection products24 at a price a small business can afford. It’s time to spread the word that natural plant oils offer plentiful sun protection.

After all plants don’t get cancer from the sun, nor do they get sun burned (as long as they have water). Plants make plant chemicals to protect them from the sun’s UV rays. We have evolved with the plants, what the plants make our bodies use.

Think about the environment trees such as Frankincense and Myrrh grow in; harsh desert environments in the Arabian Peninsula and Somalian deserts of Africa. These plants need to protect themself from sun and heat to survive, and they do that with their secondary metabolites they produce internally (essential oils!).

Making your own sun protective oils is easy now that you have the research. Choose 2-4 carrier oils to blend, and an essential oil synergy to support the SPF of the carrier oils. I personally chose for my carriers tamanu, red raspberry, pomegranate and coconut oils, with essential oils of helichrysum and myrrh. I have had continued success over many years using these oils. And when I get in the oceans here in Maui, the honu (Hawaiian green sea turtles) come up to me. They can smell under water, perhaps they are smelling the beneficial oils and coming to breathe in their goodness.

Not interested in making your own sun protective products? Then check out guide to safe sunscreens25.

DISCLAIMER: Be sure to test yourself gradually over time. Start out with your normal sunscreen except, use your new formulation on just one arm, then compare. Gradually increase your time in the sun when wearing your own homemade oils to see how long they last for you. And remember to take hats and light clothing to offer some additional protection and don’t forget to eat your polyphenol rich vegetables giving you protection from the inside out. Its a polyvalent approach.


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