Published: July 18, 2013
Fifty years ago, it was hard to avoid sunburn.
Sunscreens were crude. The most effective, zinc oxide cream, went on ghostly white and looked funny, though it did keep lifeguards from burning their noses.
Despite the current availability of highly effective sunscreens and lightweight clothing that protects against ultraviolet radiation, some people still get burned. We recently received this question:
"I have extremely sun-sensitive skin. In fact, today I got a bad sunburn after spending the day on a shaded porch reading a book.
"I really hate how sensitive my skin is to getting sunburnt, but I also hate having to reapply sunscreen every half-hour or so during the summer. Do you know of any way I can increase my tolerance of ultraviolet rays so that I don't have to apply sunscreen so often?"
Surprisingly, there is some research showing that consuming certain foods, vitamins or over-the-counter medicines might help the skin resist sunburn. None of these would be a substitute for regularly applying a high-SPF sunscreen, but they might help someone such as our sensitive reader.
One place to start is with diet. Scientists at the University of Manchester investigated the power of lycopene in tomato paste to reduce skin reddening from ultraviolet exposure. Twenty healthy, fair-skinned British women were given either 55 grams a day of tomato paste in olive oil or plain olive oil as a placebo for 12 weeks. Before and after the intervention, each woman was exposed to a measured amount of ultraviolet light. The women who had been eating tomato paste were able to tolerate more ultraviolet exposure without skin damage (British Journal of Dermatology, January 2011).
Another reader reported: "Instead of sunscreen, I take megadoses of vitamin C to protect myself. This has worked for more than 20 years against sunburn. Of course, I don't tan or freckle either. I take 3 grams of C each day, and once every year or two I might get a little pink on the most sensitive areas (tip of my nose, neck and shoulders early in the summer); otherwise, the C protects me against the radiation of the sun."
While we don't advocate going without sunscreen, some data suggest that vitamin C might offer modest protection against ultraviolet radiation. A study published in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology (February 2005) demonstrated that the combination of antioxidants vitamin C and E could reduce DNA damage caused by sun exposure. Such a dose should be discussed with a doctor.
Aspirin also has been studied for its capacity to reduce sun sensitivity. We received this question from a reader: "I've been using aspirin to help prevent sunburn for years. I just read that aspirin can reduce the incidence of skin cancer. Is there a connection?"
A German study showed that people taking 250 mg of aspirin prior to sun exposure were less likely to burn (Photochemistry and Photobiology, October 2001). More recently, Danish researchers published a case-control study showing that people who took aspirin regularly were at lower risk of squamous cell carcinoma or melanoma (Cancer, Oct. 1, 2012). Regular aspirin use can be irritating to the stomach.
Some people think that clouds will protect them from the sun, but ultraviolet rays still can burn on an overcast day. That's why it is important to use protective clothing and sunscreen for outdoor activities regardless of the weather.
Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist. Teresa Graedon holds a doctorate in medical anthropology and is a nutrition expert.