When it comes to shielding yourself from harmful UV rays, you no doubt know the drill: slap on the SPF 30+ sunscreen, wear a hat, pop on a pair of sunglasses and seek shade when possible during the peak sunlight hours of 10am to 3pm – these sun protection basics have been pretty much drummed into us.
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Protect your eyes in bright light
But you may not be aware that certain foods possess secret sun-protective powers that can mitigate the short term effects of excessive UV exposure such as sunburn, as well as long-term consequences like wrinkles, sagging skin and even skin cancer. Yes, really.
While these foods can never replace your SPF 30+ lotion – the added protection they provide is minimal – they offer an additional layer of defence. Think of them as an extra weapon in your suncare arsenal rather than a silver bullet. Here are 10 of the most effective.
Don't take risks with the sun
Fond of spag bol, tomato soup and lashings of ketchup? You're in luck. Tomatoes contain a potent UV-fighting antioxidant called lycopene, a carotenoid pigment that gives the salad favourite its distinctive red colour. Lycopene dampens down inflammation caused by excessive sun exposure and neutralises UV-induced free radical damage.
Study after study has shown that a diet rich in tomatoes can provide a natural SPF of up to four, particularly if the tomatoes are cooked, puréed or eaten with extra-virgin olive oil.
Discover our delicious tomato recipes
Super-refreshing on a scorching day, eating a slice of watermelon can help protect your skin from damaging UV rays, too. The cooling summer fruit is jam-packed with lycopene, in fact, it's an even richer source of the sun-protective phytochemical than tomatoes. Thanks to its free radical-blasting properties, lycopene helps protect cells from damage that might otherwise lead to the development of skin cancer, not to mention prostate cancer, so upping your intake is a wise move, especially if you're a man.
Find out more about prostate cancer
The humble carrot is, unsurprisingly, an excellent source of beta-carotene, which like lycopene is an antioxidant pigment with sun-protective powers, albeit not as potent. The pigment provides a natural sunscreen with an SPF of up to two or three and collects under the skin – overdoing on the carrots can actually give the complexion a yellow-orange tone. A medium-sized carrot per day is sufficient if you want to reap the sun protective benefits without looking like an Oompa Loompa, and counts as one of your five-a-day.
Try our recipe for spicy carrot soup
Another fantastic source of beta-carotene, sweet potatoes may actually have the edge over carrots in terms of sun protection prowess. Sweet potatoes are higher in UV-protective vitamin C than carrots. Plus, along with white spuds, sweet potatoes are one of the best non-animal sources of hyaluronic acid, a moisture-attracting nutrient that plumps the skin, smooths away wrinkles and helps minimise damage from ageing UVB rays.
How to cook sweet potatoes
The best wrinkle-busting foods
A diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which are abundant in oily fish such as salmon protects against skin cancer, according to researchers at the University of Manchester, and studies have found that omega-3 fish oil helps increase tolerance to sunburn. Salmon is also bursting with astaxanthin, the pink carotenoid pigment that gives the fish its characteristic hue. Astaxanthin helps reduce the inflammation associated with sunburn and blocks UV-induced cell damage. Aim for two or three portions of salmon a week to reap the benefits.
How to get omega-3 if you don't like salmon
10 healthy reasons to eat more fish
Dubbed 'nature's oldest UV protection', the little bejewelled seeds of the pomegranate contain high levels of ellagic acid, a natural phenol antioxidant boasting sun protective properties. Research suggests ellagic acid alleviates skin inflammation and wrinkles induced by UVB rays, and celebrity dermatologist Dr Howard Murad claims the age-defying fruit can boost your skin's sun-protective abilities by up to 25%.
The health benefits of exotic fruits
This trendy superfood is a stellar source of all sorts of UV-protective nutrients. For starters, kale is a decent source of sunburn and wrinkle-busting beta-carotene. The leafy veggie also contains abundant levels of vitamin C – vital for collagen synthesis – and helps prevent and heal sun damage. And if that's not enough to get you to add the superfood to your shopping list, kale is the best dietary source of lutein and zeaxanthin, carotenoids that protect the eyes from UV damage and help prevent cataracts and mascular degeneration.
How to cook kale
Like tomatoes, red peppers contain lycopene, which gives them their vibrant colour. Red peppers also provide high levels of vitamin C, a lot more believe it or not than the usual suspects such as oranges or berries. Roasting or frying the peppers will make the lycopene more bio-available, while eating your peppers raw rather than cooked will provide your body with higher levels of vitamin C, so try to enjoy both in your diet.
Try this recipe for chorizo and red pepper tart
Almonds contain high levels of quercetin, a flavonoid antioxidant that protects cells from UV damage – quercetin is so potent, it has even been proposed as a potential sunscreen agent. Almonds are also an excellent source of vitamin E. A multi-talented complexion protector, vitamin E has been shown to absorb harmful UV light, calm inflamed sunburned skin and mop up free radical damage.
10 healthy reasons to eat more nuts
Cherries contain significant amounts of UV-protective melatonin. Not to be confused with melanin, the pigment that gives skin its colour, melatonin is a hormone that regulates the body clock and helps protect cells from sun damage. Cherries are also bursting with vitamin C, adding to their UV-protective powers. While they never tend to come cheap, cherries are in season during late spring and summer, so they're lower in price, not to mention tastier to eat at this time of year.
Try this chicken salad with cherries, watercress and tarragon
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