There’s a lot of dietary advice circulating online about the kinds of foods you should eat to boost your sun tolerance and help prevent sunburn.
Much of it discusses how eating foods rich in vitamin C, water and antioxidants may improve your skin’s ability to cope outdoors without burning.
From strawberries to green tea and watermelon to tomatoes, can consuming specific foods in addition to wearing sunscreen really help to prevent you from turning into a sun-baked lobster?
Cancer Council Australia’s National Skin Cancer Committee chairperson, Heather Walker, cuts through the dietary hype to tell SBS the truth about whether the food you put in your mouth influences the sun tolerance of your skin.
Myth 1. You can adapt your diet and eat certain foods to prevent sunburn.
Walker: It is worth saying that a healthy, balanced diet will help prevent a number of different cancers. But eating certain foods to prevent sunburn, even if you are wearing sunscreen, is not something we support.
In terms of the evidence available, there’s nothing to say that any food will help you avoid sunburn or skin cancer.
[Although some studies have been done into individual foods and their ability to improve your skin’s sun tolerance], there’s nothing that we would recognise as good evidence.
Equally, any study into individual foods are way too problematic. Because we eat so many different things, it might be hard to pick out what specifically might be having a protective impact on our skin and when that food had that effect.
I’d also be sceptical about any super-food claims. There’s no one specific food that can do one specific thing - we only have good evidence to support the value of eating a healthy, balanced diet. So we certainly don’t recommend you rely on eating certain foods, in addition to wearing sunscreen, to protect yourself from the sun.
I’d also be sceptical about any super-food claims, particularly because its usually a healthy balanced diet that we have good evidence for there’s no one specific food that can do one specific thing.
Myth 2. If you have darker skin, you don’t need to wear sunscreen or worry about eating your vitamin D levels.
Walker: Darker skin tones have more melanin – the skin’s natural colour. Having a naturally darker skin tone means you will have a higher level of sun protection because the [extra] melanin in your skin helps to reduce UV penetration. People who cover for cultural or religious reasons will also be more protected from UV rays because of their clothing choices.
As the UV rays are so harsh in Australia, I’d still recommend that everyone in Australia use sun protection, regardless of your skin tone.
However, people who have darker skin might be at a higher risk of a vitamin D deficiency as well as people who cover for religious or cultural reasons. This is because the melanin in the skin blocks the UV rays – UV rays are the best natural forms of vitamin D but they also the biggest cause of skin cancer.
Some foods – like fatty fish, cheese and egg yolks – do contain more vitamin D than others. There are also foods that are fortified with vitamin D – like milk and cereals.
But there’s only so much vitamin D you can get from your diet as the best source is sun.
So for people with darker skin - we wouldn’t say limit your time outside but just use sun protection outdoors. Wearing sunscreen does not reduce your vitamin D uptake from the sun. And if you think you are at risk of a vitamin D deficiency, have a conversation with your doctor about it.
Myth 3. You can make your own sunscreen at home using healthy foods.
Walker: Definitely do not try making your own sunscreen with food at home.
Sunscreens in Australia are heavily regulated. In fact, we have some of the highest levels of sunscreen regulation in the world, overseen by the Therapeutic and Drugs Administration.
Approved sunscreens have ingredients in them that have been proven to be effective in reaching your skin.
Sunscreens are like medicines. So saying you’re going to follow a recipe and make a sunscreen at home with foods is just like saying you are going to take homemade paracetamol. You wouldn’t take homemade paracetamol, so don’t take homemade sunscreen.
So for people with darker skin, we wouldn’t say limit your time outside but just use sun protection outdoors. A good sunscreen does not reduce your vitamin D uptake from the sun.
Myth 4. You can eat your sunscreen protection by taking a sunscreen pill, ordered online, to guard against UV rays.
Walker: Be wary of anything that claims you can have sunscreen in a pill form.
There’s no evidence to show that anything you ingest will protect you from the sun. These sunscreen pills are not approved for use in Australia.