Is it time to fill your plate with certain foods this summer? (Picture: Getty)

Summer is just around the corner – and when it comes to sunshine, we all know that SPF protection is essential. 

In fact, dermatologists recommend applying it every day of the year – not just over the summer months, for protection against the sun’s harmful UVA and UVB rays.

But research over recent years has suggested that another factor could play a role in sun protection: what we eat.

Specifically, carotenoids are the thing we should be paying attention to.

For those not clued-up, carotenoids are antioxidants that give pigment to orange and red fruits and vegetables, and they sometimes go by names such as lycopene, lutein and beta carotene.

And it seems a wide range of studies have found that caroenoids may delay the process of sunburning – therefore offering a form of natural sun protection.

But can eating the likes of tomatoes, carrots and peppers really protect us from getting sunburnt?

We’ve asked experts to dig into the specifics. 

Dr Ross Perry, the medical director of Cosmedics skin clinics, says: ‘Lycopene does contain rich antioxidant properties, which are substances that can prevent or slow down environmental aggressors.

‘It’s the pigment in these lycopene-rich foods, such as ripe tomatoes, pink grapefruit, guava and red peppers, which contain the most amount of lycopene.

‘Small studies conducted suggest that those who consumed lycopene had around 33% more protection from sunburn than those who hadn’t. 

‘The theory behind this was the lycopene content may neutralise the effects of UV light.’

Experts say loads up on tomatoes and watermelon (Picture: Getty Images)

So if you’re looking to get the most lycopene out of food, where do you look?

Dr Thivi Maruthappu, a consultant dermatologist at Cadogan Clinic, says that tomatoes are actually the richest source of lycopene in our diets. 

She explains: ‘This powerful caretenoid antioxidant helps dampen the effects of harmful free radicals in the skin – and, as we know, free radical damage is a key feature of sunburn and skin ageing.

‘Try to include tomatoes in your holiday meals – sun-ripened tomatoes are delicious in a salad with plenty of olive oil.

‘Cherry tomatoes have the highest levels of lycopene – so go for these if you can.

‘Not only is lycopene beneficial for the skin, but research shows that it could even help to protect against diabetes and heart disease.’

This is backed-up by science too, as previously researchers at the University of Michigan found that people who consumed 40g of tomato paste daily (containing 16 milligrams of lycopene) had their skin more protected from the effects of ultraviolet light exposure than those who did not eat tomato paste.

Watermelon is another top food for sun protection, explains Dr Raj Arora – an NHS GP and skin expert at The Face Bible.

She tells ‘Watermelon is the perfect summer snack, but it’s also great for protecting your skin from the sun.

‘The lycopene in watermelons absorbs both UVA and UVB radiation. If you eat watermelons every day for a few weeks, your skin will be loaded with natural sun protection. And besides being a delicious snack, 92% of watermelon is water so it hydrates your skin and keeps it healthy, too.’

What foods should we be eating for sun protection?

Lifesum’s Dr Alona Pulde says Vitamin C, lycopene and Vitamin E protect and repair skin against sun damage and ageing.

She explains that you can find them in the following foods…

‘Blueberries – rich in antioxidants and vitamin C to protect and repair skin against sun damage, and support collagen production to keep skin young and healthy looking.

‘Watermelon – has more lycopene than tomatoes, which has been shown to protect skin against sun damage and aging. Watermelon’s rich water content helps to maintain hydration on warm days, keeping skin healthy and youthful. 

Green Tea – studies have shown that green tea protects skin against sun damage. It also has the added benefits of reducing inflammation, soothing the skin, and decreasing oil production.

Avocados – n addition to their healthy fats, avocados are rich in vitamins C and E, which help to protect skin from sun damage and inflammation.

‘Leafy greens – including kale, spinach, collars and cabbage are rich in antioxidants that protect against skin damage while enhancing skin repair.’

But Dr Raj also stresses that while red fruits and vegetables are great for offering natural sun protection, there are a range of other options with similar benefits.

She adds: ‘Sweet potatoes and spinach are good sources of beta carotene, which decreases redness in skin when it is exposed to ultraviolet radiation.

‘Spinach is also loaded with lutein, another skin-protective carotenoid.

‘Citrus fruits are also loaded with Vitamin C, a natural protectant of free radical damage and premature ageing.

‘Omega 3s, found in fish or plant-based seeds, are also great for keeping the skin supple with anti-inflammatory properties, which can help protect against sunburn.’

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However, all experts stress that while various foods can be consumed to help with sun protection – they can’t be used on their own. You absolutely still need to wear suncream.

Dr Ross adds: ‘No amount of fruit and vegetables is going to protect you against UVA and UVA damage from the sun if you’re not wearing a high SPF.

‘Fruits and vegetables containing lycopene can be consumed in addition to wearing SPF – but should in no way be used as an alternative.’

This is also backed-up by Dr Thivi.

She adds: ‘While early research into lycopene is promising, this doesn’t mean you should throw out sunscreen and eat tomatoes instead. 

‘Do both – be careful with regular application of SPF and stay out of the sun during peak hours when it’s sunny (11am-3pm).’

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