By now, just about everyone but the most die-hard sun worshipers understands the necessity of sunscreen during the long, sunny days of summer. But many do not realize there is a second line of defense: what we eat.
While sunscreen blocks some of the sun’s rays from damaging our skin cells, it doesn’t block all. Sun rays slip through our outer barrier, damaging tissue — hello, wrinkles and sunspots — not to mention increasing the risk of skin cancer. Some doctors are now recommending that certain foods can also play a role in prevention.
“Diet is an oft-overlooked area of skin care, but it’s becoming more in vogue, especially as more and more research links diet to skin health,” said Sarah Dolder, a dermatologist who grew up in Australia, where safe-sun practices are part of everyone’s daily routine. Dolder, who practices in New York City and Greenwich, Conn., advises consuming hydrating foods rich in antioxidants to help prevent cell damage and also to give skin a youthful glow.
Summertime’s intense heat dehydrates skin cells, which are over 60 percent water, Dolder says. Much like the sun shrivels a grape into a raisin as water evaporates, the powerful rays do the same to our skin cells. And while sunscreen is essential, it also exacerbates the problem, by causing further dryness, the doctor says. Dolder recommends the extra measures of drinking at least eight glasses of water and eating hydrating foods every day to help replace lost water.
Luckily, the foods that are best for skin care in the summer are also those that are locally grown in the summer. Berries, cucumbers, tomatoes, and herbs such as parsley and mint are an arsenal for sun protection, and their recipe possibilities are endless. For example, a fresh sweet-and-tart take on tabbouleh, the Middle Eastern bulgur and herb salad, is the perfect picnic lunch. By substituting antioxidant-rich strawberries and hemp seeds loaded with omega-3 fatty acids into the traditional mix, the dish transforms into a summer skin savior that even kids will love. Likewise, a hydrating, chilled soup becomes just what the doctor ordered when the temperatures soar. Water-dense cucumbers and creamy avocado, a fruit loaded with antioxidants and anti-inflammatory carotenoids, are blended into a refreshing soup and topped with an easy tomato relish. No stove required.
As hard as we try to protect ourselves, it’s difficult to prevent all sun damage. Melanin, the substance responsible for freckles, moles, and suntans, is actually the body’s way of defending itself from UVA/UVB damage. While we can’t undo all of the damage, we can nurture and brighten our skin’s post-sun exposure with a gentle face mask. Made with the same key summer ingredients from the recipes above, a mask made of crushed strawberries, honey, mint, and lemon is a skin booster. It softly removes surface skin, allowing nourishing serums and lotions to penetrate more easily. Additionally, strawberries contain vitamin C, natural exfoliating acids, and tiny seeds that all help to lighten. Mint leaves, a natural source of salicylic acid, also help delicately slough off dull skin without damaging healing skin.
I wish there were just one magic potion for preserving our complexions, but protecting ourselves from the sun — from the inside and outside — is the closest thing we have to a fountain of youth. An antioxidant-rich diet, dedicated self-care routines, and safe-sun practices such as wearing sunscreen daily are small investments to prevent sun overexposure, which is responsible for the majority of visible aging, not to mention an increased risk of skin cancer, according to the American Academy of Dermatology.
So, add those hydrating summer foods to your diet, but don’t neglect the sunscreen.