Protect Your Skin from Summer Sun with the Right Supplements

Summer approaches…Plan Ahead

Ultraviolet (UV) rays on unprotected skin can cause first and second degree burns to the skin, commonly referred to as sunburn. Long-term damage from overexposure can include premature aging and even skin cancer. The use of commercially available sunscreens with an SPF of 15 or higher is effective protection. However, a variety of natural remedies may be even more helpful than chemical-laden oils.

Protective nutritional supplements

Research has identified the benefits of antioxidants to prevent or minimize injury caused by UV radiation. Damage begins when UV radiation stimulates the production of free radicals and lipid peroxidases within the skin. Antioxidants such as vitamin E and vitamin C neutralize these particles and curtail cellular damage. These common nutrients are also effective for sunburn prevention.

In a study at the University of Munich, 10 subjects were given Vitamin C (2000 mg) and Vitamin E (1000 IU) daily or a placebo. The sunburn reaction before and after 8 days of supplement use was determined by measuring the minimal erythema (redness) dose, or MED. This is the amount of UV radiation necessary to create a uniform pink color on exposed skin.

The results showed that subjects taking the vitamins required 20% more UV radiation to experience the same level of reaction as compared to those taking a placebo(1) . A similar result came from a separate study at the University of Frankfurt, concluding that vitamin C and vitamin E act synergistically to suppress a sunburn reaction.(2)

Another supplement, beta-carotene, has been studied for effects as a sun protectant. Data published from study at the University of Arizona suggests that supplementation with natural carotenoids 90 mg daily for 24 weeks conveys modest protection from both UVA- and UVB-induced erythema.(3)

Taking these three supplements daily for a week before a going on a beach vacation, or taking them throughout the summer, could be a wonderful, safe way to protect yourself from sunburn.

Healing Topical Therapies

Natural topical therapies have been shown to be helpful for sunburn. A study from the University of Western Ontario showed that application of 5% Vitamin E cream immediately after a sunburn significantly decreased necrosis of the skin’s keratinocytes, commonly referred to as “peeling.” This positive effect was noted even when the application was delayed up to 8 hours after exposure.(4) This is very good news for those that discover in the evening that their over-exposure occurred earlier in the day.

A variety of herbs been reported to have soothing effects. Applying the oil from sea buckthorn (hippophae rhamnoides) 3 to 4 times per day has been useful as both a natural a sunscreen or as a sunburn therapy. Sea buckthorn oil is a natural product that contains vitamin C, malic acid, flavaniods, carotenoids, and essential fatty acids. These constituents protect cells from lipid peroxidation injury.(5) Interestingly, the oil concentrate has been used to treat radiation burns caused by radiation therapy and on bedsores. Sea buckthorn increased the rate of new skin formation and hasten the formation of granulation tissue in wounds.(6) Other herbs useful for the topical treatment of sunburn include 5-10% jojoba extract,(7) jujube oil,(8) and a semi-solid preparation of 20-30% dried poplar buds.

Beware of Herbal Photosensitizers

Consumers need to be aware of potential complications, such as photosensitivity, associated with both natural and pharmaceutical products from only moderate sun exposure. St. Johns Wort (hypericum perforatum) can cause photosensitization when taken orally at 1800 mg/day for 15 days (9) and can cause phototoxicity at a dose of 0.5 mg/kg per day, albeit that is a rather large dose.(10) Photosensitization has been observed from both topical and large consumption of herbs that originate from plants that belong to the Apiaceae family.(11) The extensive list of common spices and vegetables from that plant family includes parsley, wild carrot, parsnip, anise, coriander, fennel, lovage, bishop’s weed, angelica root, pimpinella root, guta kola and dong quai. Interestingly, eating common figs (Ficus carica) may also cause photodematitis in sun-sensitive persons.(12) Patients should be reminded that the use of certain medications are also known to cause photosensitivity, such as sulfa and tetracycline.

A Final Note

Lack of exposure to sun can cause significant health problems too. Sunshine on the skin converts 7-dehydrocholesterol to pre-vitamin D, which is further processed by the kidneys into 1,25-dihydroxyvitamin D, the active form of the vitamin. A New England Journal of Medicine article reports that roughly one-third of men and half of women over the age of 60 are deficient in vitamin D, the nutrient essential to maintaining health bones.(13) Spending 20 to 30 minutes in full sunlight, without sunscreen, three times a week, will allow the body to produce the much-needed vitamin D.

A very recent study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition states that vitamin D is not toxic at intakes much higher than previously considered unsafe. “This risk assessment was needed to show that newer evidence supports the conclusion that vitamin D is much safer then previously thought, particularly because of all the emergence research that shows benefit for vitamin D at higher levels than consumers were traditionally taking,” lead author John Hathcock told In fact, the Council for Responsible nutrition scientists state that this could be raised to 10,000 IU (250 micrograms per day). (14)

Using common sense in the sun moderate exposure and an awareness of potentially phototoxic herbal remedies will go along way to promote good health for your skin and make summer fun a delightful experience instead of an eventful one.


(1) Eberlein-Konig B, Placzek M, Pryzbilla. Protective effect against sunburn of combined systemic ascorbic acid (vitamin C) and d-alpha-tocoperhol (vitamin E). J Am Acad. Dermatol. 1998 Jan;38(1):45-8.

(2) Fuchs J, Kern H. Modulation of UV-light-induced shin inflammation by d-alpha-tocoperhol and L-ascorbic acid: a clinical study using solar simulated radiation. Free Radic Biol Med. 1998 Dec:25(9):1006-12.

(3) Lee J; Jiang S; Levine N; Watson RR. Carotenoid supplementation reduces erythema in human skin after simulated solar radiation exposure. Proc Soc Exp Biol Med 2000 Feb;223(2):170-4.

(4) Trevithick, JR; Reduction of sunburn damage to skin by topical application to vitamin E acetate following exposure to ultraviolet B radiation: effect of delaying application or of reducing concentration of Vitamin E acetate applied. Scanning Microsc 1993 Dec;7(4):1269-81.

(5) Wang Y, Lu y, Liu X, et. al. the protective effect of Hippophae rhamnoides L. on hyperlipidemic serum cultured smooth muscle cells in vitro [article in Chinese]. Chung Kuo chung Yao Tsa chih 1992; 17(10): 601, 624-26, inside back cover.

(6) Gruenwald J, et al. PDR for Herbal Medicines. 1st Edition. Montvale, NJ: Medical Economics Company, Inc., 1998.

(7) Leung AY, Foster S. Encyclopedia of Common Natural Ingredients Used in Food, Drugs and Cosmetics. 2nd Edition. New York, NY: Jon Wiley & Sons, 1996.

(8) Ibid.

(9) Upton R, ed. St. John’s Wort, Hypercium perforatum: quality control, analytical and therapeutic monograph. Santa Cruz, CA: American herbal Pharmacopoeia; 1997;1-32.

(10) Gulick RM, McAuliffe V, Holden-wiltse J, et al. Phase I studies of hypericin, the active compound in St. John’s Wort, as an antiretroviral agent in HIV-infected adults. AIDS Clinical Trials Group Protocols 150 and 258. Ann Int Med 1999;130(6): 510-4.

(11) Blumenthal M, et al. The complete German Commission E Monographs: Therapeutic Guide to Herbal Medicines. Trans. S. Klein. Boston, MA: American Botanical Council, 1998.

(12) Brinker F. Herb Contraindications and Drug Interactions. 2nd ed Sandy, OR: Eclectic Medical Publications, 1998.

(13)Utiger, RD. NEJM, 1998: Vol.338(12): 828-Editorial.

(14) J.N. Hathcock, A. Shao, R. Vieth, R. Heaney. Risk assessment for vitamin D” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. January 2007, Volume85, Pages 6-18.

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