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Integrative Approaches to Sun Protection: Thinking Beyond Sunscreen

Medically reviewed by 
Integrative Approaches to Sun Protection: Thinking Beyond Sunscreen

Summer is an energizing season filled with long sunny days! The outdoors provides a range of summer fun. Even though UV rays from the sun can damage your skin, there are also health benefits that you can derive from balanced sun exposure.

Correctly timed moderate sun exposure can provide health benefits for most people, including helping to maintain adequate vitamin D levels, boosting alertness, keeping sleep-wake (circadian) cycles balanced, reducing pain, and stimulating mitochondria. On the other hand, too much sunlight can expose you to high rays of invisible ultraviolet (UV) light that can contribute to sunburn, accelerated skin aging, and skin cancers. 

An integrative approach can help you safely enjoy the outdoors to enjoy these health benefits of sunshine while preventing overexposure and skin damage.


Understanding Sun Exposure and Its Effects

Exposure to ultraviolet radiation in sunlight can be beneficial in certain quantities, but when exposure occurs too long or too intensely it can damage health. The sun creates energy of visible light that you can see, infrared radiation that you can feel as heat, and ultraviolet (UV) radiation that you cannot see or feel but that can impact your cells. 

UV rays from the sun are three main types. The majority of UV radiation reaching the Earth’s surface is UVA since most of it is not filtered by the atmosphere. UVA waves can penetrate deeply into the skin and indirectly damage DNA by generating free radicals as well as causing damage to collagen, accelerating aging of the skin, and contributing to cataracts. Most ultraviolet B rays (UVB) are shielded by the atmosphere and do not reach the Earth’s surface, but those that do can cause sunburns, skin aging, skin cancer, and snow blindness, as well as reduced immunity. Ultraviolet C rays (UVC) are completely absorbed by the atmosphere and never reach the Earth’s surface. 

While there are risks to too much sun exposure, you need some to balance your body and health. Sun exposure at the right times of day and in the correct doses helps to regulate your circadian rhythms, contributing to a balanced mood and sound sleep. 

Research also shows that balanced sun exposure can regulate vitamin D in a way that supplements cannot match. This critical vitamin and steroid hormone plays a role in regulating bone health, heart function, immunity, and inflammation. The body can synthesize vitamin D3 in the skin when UVB rays strike exposed skin. This then travels to the liver and kidneys, where it is biotransformed into the biologically active hormone. Vitamin D produced via sunlight hitting the skin seems to last at least twice as long in the blood compared with vitamin D ingested from food or supplements. 

For most people, depending on location and time of year, getting 10–30 minutes of midday sunlight several times per week can help maintain healthy levels. The optimal time for vitamin D production from sun exposure is approximately noon, when UVB rays are most likely to reach your skin, at the same time, UVA rays, that increase the risk of skin cancer and damage, are minimized. Balanced sun exposure also helps reduce pain and regulate metabolism.

When it comes to the optimal amount of sun exposure, each person is different. Some people have a greater susceptibility to the damaging impacts of UV exposure and may require different strategies to avoid harm. For example, people with autoimmune conditions like lupus are often very sun sensitive. Photosensitivity is common in systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) and cutaneous or discoid lupus, with sun exposure causing skin lesions and flare-ups of symptoms such as joint pains and fatigue. Some medications, such as tetracycline antibiotics, can increase sun sensitivity even more. 

People who have undergone radiation or chemotherapy treatments may also be extra sensitive to sun exposure. Skin that has been exposed to radiation reacts more easily to sun exposure, while some chemotherapy agents also increase susceptibility to UV exposure and reduce the skin's ability to heal from damage.

Certain genetic susceptibilities make it more difficult to repair UV-induced DNA damage, so those with a personal or family history of skin cancer may also need to take greater precautions to avoid too much sun exposure. 

Natural Topical Sun Protection

An integrative approach combines lifestyle and dietary factors to allow you to safely enjoy the sun while minimizing overexposure and damage. Integrative approaches can help you protect your skin from too much sun beyond the conventional approach of using sunscreen alone. You can adjust these approaches along with your healthcare provider based on your individual needs, lifestyle, and susceptibilities.

Applying sunscreens, limiting sun exposure at certain times of the day, and wearing protective clothing are classic recommendations for minimizing the sun’s harmful ultraviolet radiation. Unfortunately, sunscreen alone is not a simple solution since research suggests that sunscreens may not protect against all skin cancers, and many contain ingredients that cause harm to health and the environment. Therefore, integrative solutions incorporating natural options can help boost your skincare regimen.

With increasing awareness of potential adverse effects tied to chemical-based sunscreens, some people are turning to natural or homemade topical sun protective options. Many natural antioxidants and other ingredients have sun-protection properties. For example, research suggests that a topical antioxidant solution containing vitamins C and E stabilized by ferulic acid, an antioxidant found in pineapple, bamboo shoots, and coffee, protects human skin against damage caused by ultraviolet exposure. As a topical agent, vitamin C is photoprotective and is, therefore, commonly added to sunscreens. 

Another antioxidant-rich sun-protective agent is grape seed extract (GSE). Studies show that GSE inhibits inflammation, facilitates rapid repair of DNA damage from UV rays, and stimulates the immune system to target abnormal cells.

Topical vitamin D preparations have also been studied for their sun protection properties. They seem to prevent DNA damage and facilitate cell repair and survival after UV exposure. 

Studies have shown that some herbal plant oils also provide natural sun protection, although most of them provide a lower sun protective factor (SPF) level. For example, calendula oil has been shown to have an SPF of around 15. Red raspberry oil is rich in omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids and helps improve the skin’s lipid barrier so that it can resist sun damage against UVB rays.

Carrot seed oil is derived from the seeds of the wild carrot plant (Daucus carota) and is another plant oil that has natural sun protective effects. This oil is rich in carotene and lycopene and has been traditionally used to nourish and rejuvenate the skin. Studies on the sun protection factor (SPF) value of carrot seed oil vary from 1 and 7 SPF.

While you may not be able to rely solely on these oils to protect your skin from burning with prolonged sun exposure, combining topical antioxidants and phytonutrients, including vitamin E, flavonoids, and carotenoids like beta-carotene, lycopene, and luteolin with other methods of protection offers promise for reducing sun damage.

Since homemade sunscreens are not easily regulated or standardized to ensure the potency of the ingredients, there is a risk of inadequate protection. Commercial natural sunscreens can be another alternative. They often incorporate physical barriers like minerals such as zinc oxide to coat the skin and reflect UV rays off. The Environmental Working Group provides a searchable online guide to sunscreens where you can search for the safety of ingredients in many popular brands.

How Our Diet Helps With Sun Protection

Your diet can help fortify your body against sun damage and boost your natural protection.  Many of the fresh healthy foods that are readily available in summer also serve to fortify you as a sort of internal sunscreen. Studies show that carotenoids, polyphenols, and some vitamins in food improve the skin’s ability to resist UV damage and sunburn and improve the skin’s recovery from UV damage.

An anti-inflammatory diet full of fresh, unprocessed, whole organic foods, including plenty of brightly colored veggies and fruits, provides antioxidants, essential omega-3 fatty acids, and other compounds that bolster the body against the negative impacts of too much sun exposure by combating free-radical damage.

Human studies have documented that a combination of carotenoids, including lycopene in tomatoes and watermelon, lutein in spinach and other dark-green veggies, and beta-carotene in orange, red, and yellow produce like bell peppers and pumpkin, can improve skin health by minimizing the skin’s susceptibility to UV damage. Another carotenoid, astaxanthin, which is found in microalgae and seafood like salmon, shellfish, and krill that consumes this algae also helps keep skin healthy. 

Foods that are rich in vitamin A in the form of beta-carotene, like carrots, chlorella, spirulina, sweet potatoes, and grass-fed beef liver, also help to protect the skin from sun damage. Similarly, regular green tea consumption reduces the risk of sun damage persisting.

Polypodium leucotomos is a species of fern found in South America that has traditionally been used for a variety of dermatologic conditions, including psoriasis, atopic dermatitis, vitiligo, polymorphic light eruption, and melasma. Research shows that the extract of this plant is protective against sun damage by reducing UV-mediated oxidative stress via enhancement of your internal antioxidant systems, blocking the formation of reactive oxygen species, reducing DNA damage, and blocking the release of inflammatory cytokines. Human studies have shown the effectiveness of oral supplementation with P. leucotomos against sunburn and UV damage. 

Keeping the skin hydrated is also important for preventing UV damage. Cells in the layer of your skin, known as the stratum corneum play an important role in sun protection. Their ability to protect your skin from too much UV radiation varies based on hydration. Staying well hydrated is also important for preventing other heat-related health impacts like heat exhaustion and dehydration.

Lifestyle Modifications for Sun Protection

A simple way to enjoy outdoor activities but minimize the damage to your skin is to minimize your time spent in the sun’s strongest rays. Almost half of the daytime total of the more harmful UVB radiation is received between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. and can impact your skin even on cloudy days. Staying in the shade when possible during the strongest rays of the day and getting in your outdoor movement or time at the beach in the early morning or late afternoon can significantly reduce your exposure to the most damaging UV rays.

One tool to help you estimate your risk of unprotected sun exposure is the UV index that is available on some weather reports. At a low UV index score of 0-2, most people can safely stay outside using minimal sun protection. While at moderate (3-5) and high (6-7) UV index scores, it is recommended to use protection, stay in the shade during late morning through mid-afternoon, and wear protective clothing, a wide-brimmed hat, and sunglasses. Once the UV index reaches very high (8-10) and extreme (11+) levels, extra protection is recommended using clothing, hats, sunscreen, and sunglasses since skin can burn quickly at this stage.

You can also estimate how much UV exposure you are getting by looking at your shadow. If your shadow is taller than you are- like in the early morning and late afternoon- your UV exposure is likely to be lower. But, if it is shorter than you- like around midday, you are being exposed to higher levels of UV radiation and may need extra protective measures.

Sunscreen eliminates only about 55 percent of free-radical damage induced by UV rays, so it is not enough alone to completely protect your skin. Physically blocking the sun from reaching your skin with sun-protective clothing is another way to reduce exposure when needed. Sun protection clothing like swim shirts and tights can be especially valuable for water activities where the sun's rays are intensified by reflection, and sunscreen can wash off over time. They are also useful for hot summer physical activity, where sweating can make sunscreen less effective. 

The skin of the face and neck is especially fragile and susceptible to sun damage, so a wide-brim hat or neck guard can increase protection. While allowing light from the sun to enter the eyes is important for regulating circadian rhythms, sunglasses can help to protect the eyes from UV damage at times when the sun is at its strongest. 

Chronic stress has wide-ranging impacts on the skin, with both stress and UV exposure suppressing immunity and the body’s ability to repair damaged cells. Hormones released during your body’s stress response, such as cortisol, catecholamines, and other neuropeptides, increase skin inflammation and itching while impairing your skin barrier function, wound healing, and immunity. Therefore, regularly incorporating mind-body practices for stress reduction, like yoga, tai chi, prayer, or breathwork, can boost the skin’s UV resiliency. 

Sun Protection and Environmental Sustainability

Making thoughtful choices for sun protection strategies can help to reduce your environmental impact. Sunscreen helps to provide either a chemical or physical barrier against the sun’s rays. An ideal sunscreen provides adequate protection without harmful endocrine-disrupting chemicals or adverse effects on marine systems. When choosing a sunscreen, avoid ingredients like oxybenzone, octinoxate, retinyl palmitate (a form of vitamin A), synthetic fragrance, and homosalate, which can alter hormones and/or irritate the skin. Substances such as parabens, phthalates, and synthetic musks are linked to endocrine disruption and reproductive impacts and may be absorbed through the skin. Chemical sunscreens that contain oxybenzone and octinoxate can wash off your skin while swimming and harm coral reefs

Nanomaterials used as UV filters in zinc oxide and titanium dioxide nanoformulations help reduce the white film left on the skin, but tiny nanoparticles may have a toxic effect when absorbed through the skin and accumulate in the environment. Since studies are still ongoing, the most environmentally friendly and reef-safe option for water activities may be using protective clothing while in the water.

Another way to balance your sun protection needs with environmental sustainability is to avoid using sprays or powdered sunscreens, which can release toxic fumes you can breathe into your lungs and spread into the environment. Instead, choose lotion or cream formulations for more controlled application. 

Given the lack of an ideal safe option for sustainable sun protection, research is underway to find possible solutions. For example, scientists are working to create a natural sunscreen from shinorine, a UV-absorbing material derived from algae that belong to the family known as mycosporine-like amino acids.

Another solution in development to help deal with the environmental impact of sunscreens is striving to create biodegradable beads that could soak up oxybenzone from oceans.

Functional Medicine Labs That Can Help Patients Identify Deficiencies That Can Make Them More Susceptible to Sunburns

Vitamin D plays an important role in the health of the skin and other bodily functions, including immunity, metabolic, and liver health. Sufficient vitamin D is an important factor for preventing skin damage and cancer, so measuring and repleting low levels can help reduce the risk of skin damage from the sun.

Antioxidants such as beta-carotene and vitamins C, E, and A, as well as omega-3 fatty acids, can help to keep skin healthy and mitigate the damage caused by unstable molecules known as free radicals that can form from too much exposure to UV radiation from the sun.



While the sun offers numerous health benefits, your skin endures substantial oxidative stress when exposed to UV radiation from the sun. Fortunately, there are many integrative approaches to help boost your body’s natural antioxidant protective systems and prevent skin aging and damage.

Spending short amounts of time (10-30 minutes) exposing unprotected skin to the sun at times of the year and midday when UVB rays are optimal for vitamin D production and other benefits allows for balanced sun exposure without overdoing the risk. Certain topical antioxidants, like vitamins C, E, grape seed extract, and natural plant oils like red raspberry oil can bolster the skin's defenses. You can also incorporate natural dietary skin support by eating plenty of foods rich in carotenoids like lycopene, lutein, and beta-carotene in colorful fruits and vegetables to reduce your skin’s susceptibility to ultraviolet damage. 

Another sun protection strategy is to find or create shade and choose your outdoor time at strategic times of the day. Sun-protective clothing, sunglasses, and a good hat can protect delicate skin and your eyes so that you can enjoy the outdoors without suffering damage.

The information provided is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always consult with your doctor or other qualified healthcare provider before taking any dietary supplement or making any changes to your diet or exercise routine.
Learn More

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