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Preventing Sunburn from the Inside Out

Most people think the only way for preventing sunburn is sunscreen. Sunscreens work! But aspirin and astaxanthin work from the inside.

Fifty years ago, it was hard to avoid sunburn. Sunscreens were crude. The most effective, zinc oxide cream, went on ghostly white. It looked funny, though it did keep lifeguards from burning their noses. The best strategy for preventing sunburn was to stay out of the midday sun. 

What If You Are Super Sensitive to the Sun?

Although Americans now have access to highly effective sunscreens and lightweight clothing that protects against ultraviolet radiation, sometime they still burn.

We 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 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?”

Preventing Sunburn with Food?

Surprisingly, there is some research showing that consuming certain foods, vitamins or over-the-counter medicines may help the skin resist sunburn. None of these would be a substitute for regularly applying a high-SPF sunscreen, but they might help someone like 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 g/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 been eating tomato paste were able to tolerate more ultraviolet exposure without skin damage (British Journal of Dermatology, Jan., 2011).

The authors concluded:

“This study supports previous epidemiological, animal and human data reporting protective effects of lycopene and indicates that this agent also protects against UVR‐induced tissue damage…Nutritional photoprotection with tomato products is a promising area for research, and further investigative and clinical studies are required to explore these novel findings.”

More recently, scientists conducted a randomized controlled trial of tomato phytonutrients compared to placebo (Skin Pharmacology and Physiology, March 5, 2019). The researchers found that after three months, volunteers who took the lycopene, beta-carotene and other nutrients got less sunburned and had lower levels of inflammatory markers.

A Supplement for Preventing Sunburn?

Q. My “healthy neighbor in the know” swears that astaxanthin is a better alternative to chemical-laden sunscreens. What say you?

A. Supplement makers get astaxanthin, a type of carotenoid, from marine organisms. Generally, plants produce carotenoids  that serve as precursors to vitamin A in animals. However, our bodies do not convert astaxanthin to this vitamin. It has its own anti-inflammatory and immune-modulating activity (Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology, Jan. 2020).  As a result, supplement makers have promoted this ingredient for skin health.

We were excited to learn that many carotenoids help protect skin from sun damage (Photodermatology, Photoimmunology & Photomedicine, online May 5, 2021).

According to the scientists,

“Oral supplementation with multi-carotene supplements may provide incidental photoprotection with a more uniform coverage over the total body surface area and could potentially help maintain a healthy-looking skin.”

However, they warn that supplements are not a substitute for effective sunscreens but should be used in addition to sunscreen, clothing and shade for complementary photoprotection.

Aspirin for Preventing Sunburn:

Aspirin has also been studied for its capacity to reduce sun sensitivity.

One reader shared this experience:

“I grew up in Florida. As a teenager, I discovered that if I took aspirin for a headache, I didn’t burn! Otherwise, my skin could blister in 20 minutes at midday.

“We are now retired, and I take a baby aspirin daily on my doctor’s advice. I don’t burn, though I am careful to avoid the sun in the middle of the day. Sunscreens with SPF irritate my skin, so I don’t use them but don’t seem to need them.”

A. Your experience has scientific support. There is evidence that aspirin can reduce the damaging effect of the sun’s ultraviolet rays (Journal of Investigative Dermatology, Jan. 2021). There is also some research suggesting that people who take aspirin may be less likely to develop skin cancer (Oncology Letters, March, 2015). 

Speaking of skin cancer, we received this question from a reader:

Q. 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. A German study showed that people taking 250 mg of aspirin prior to sun exposure were less likely to burn (Photochemistry and Photobiology, Oct. 2001). Danish researchers also published a case-control study showing that people who took aspirin regularly were at lower risk of squamous cell carcinoma or melanoma (Cancer, Oct., 2012).

A meta-analysis in Oncology Letters (March, 2015) reviewed data from eight case-controlled studies and five prospective cohort trials.

The authors concluded:

“Statistical analyses of the pooled data demonstrated that that a daily dose of 50-400 mg aspirin was significantly associated with a reduced risk of skin cancers. Stratification analysis indicated that the continual intake of low dose aspirin (≤150 mg) reduced the risk of developing skin cancer and that aspirin intake was significantly associated with a reduced risk of non-melanoma skin cancers. Overall, these findings indicated that aspirin intake was associated with a reduced risk of developing skin cancer. However, more well-designed randomized controlled trials to measure the effects of aspirin intake are required to confirm this.”

Regular aspirin use can be irritating to the stomach, however, so check with a doctor before beginning a regular regimen.

Vitamin C for Preventing Sunburn:

Another reader reported:

“Instead of sunscreen, I take megadoses of vitamin C to protect myself. This has worked for over 20 years against sunburn. Of course, I don’t tan or freckle either. I take 3 grams of C each day. 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 may offer modest protection against ultraviolet radiation. A study published in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology (Feb., 2005) demonstrated that the combination of antioxidants vitamin C and E could reduce DNA damage caused by sun exposure. You should discuss your supplement regimen with your doctor.

Clouds for Preventing Sunburn?

Some people think that clouds will protect them from the sun, but ultraviolet rays can still burn on an overcast day. That’s why it is important to use protective clothing and sunscreen for outdoor activities regardless of the weather.

It still makes sense to use sunscreen and avoid the midday sun. Anyone who plans to take aspirin regularly should discuss the pros and cons with their heath care provider. Usually, you can safely take vitamin C and carotenoids such as astaxanthin without medical supervision. Still, you should let your physician know what you are doing.

We offer other recommendations on protecting your precious dermis in our free Guide to Skin Care & Treatment. 

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About the Author
Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist who has dedicated his career to making drug information understandable to consumers. His best-selling book, The People’s Pharmacy, was published in 1976 and led to a syndicated newspaper column, syndicated public radio show and web site. In 2006, Long Island University awarded him an honorary doctorate as “one of the country's leading drug experts for the consumer.”.
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  • Rizwan, M., et al, "Tomato paste rich in lycopene protects against cutaneous photodamage in humans in vivo: a randomized controlled trial," British Journal of Dermatology, Jan. 2011, doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2133.2010.10057.x
  • Groten K et al, "Tomato phytonutrients balance UV response: Results from a double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled study." Skin Pharmacology and Physiology, March 5, 2019. DOI: 10.1159/000497104
  • Singh KN et al, "Protective effects of astaxanthin on skin: Recent scientific evidence, possible mechanisms, and potential indications." Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology, Jan. 2020. DOI: 10.1111/jocd.13019
  • Baswam SM et al, "Role of ingestible carotenoids in skin protection: A review of clinical evidence." Photodermatology, Photoimmunology & Photomedicine, online May 5, 2021. DOI: 10.1111/phpp.12690
  • Rahman, H., et al, "Aspirin Protects Melanocytes and Keratinocytes against UVB-Induced DNA Damage In Vivo," Journal of Investigative Dermatology, Jan. 2021, doi: 10.1016/j.jid.2020.06.003
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