Damage in the dark: UV rays can harm your skin even after you’ve come in from the sun

New research shows the sun’s UV rays may be much more harmful than we thought. In fact, they can continue to damage your skin for up to four hours after you go inside.1

Even if you’re sitting in total darkness.

But there is a ray of hope—the researchers theorize that a simple, natural vitamin may be able to diminish some of the potentially dangerous after-effects of UV ray exposure. I’ll tell you more about this natural protector in just a moment. And I’ll also give you some simple tips for how you can fight skin cancer from the inside out, with certain foods and supplements that are scientifically proven to help limit the cellular damage of UV rays.

But first, let’s take a closer look at this new research and how UV damage sets in.

You need some sun—but not a lot

When UV rays—from either the sun or tanning beds—hit skin cells called melanocytes, the radiation can damage the DNA in those cells. Eventually, the damage accumulates and can lead to skin cancer.

Sunscreen can block those rays. But even if you use sunscreen with an SPF of 50 or higher, about 2 percent of UV rays still manage to get penetrate your skin.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing—in moderation. In fact, I recommend about 20 minutes of mid-day sun exposure—without sunscreen and with as much bare skin as possible—every day. This helps you get the vitamin D your body needs.

UV rays also help lower your blood pressure by elevating nitric oxide, a vasodilator that widens blood vessels. This allows your blood to flow more freely, which helps prevent heart attacks and strokes.

But we’ve known for quite some time that more than 20 minutes a day of unprotected sun exposure can lead to trouble. And as this new study shows, simply going inside isn’t enough to nip it in the bud.

To truly protect yourself from the UV rays that continue to damage your skin long after your time in the sun ends, I recommend augmenting your sunscreen with the following foods and supplements. Think of them an “internal” sunscreens.

Monounsaturated fatty acids. These compounds, known as MUFAS, are found in oils (including my favorite—macadamia nut oil), seeds, nuts, olives, avocados, and even chocolate. New research shows they can protect against ultraviolet radiation.2

MUFAs are popular in the Mediterranean diet, and the researchers note that people who live in that region have lower rates of melanoma skin cancer—even though they’re exposed to plenty of sun.

Astaxanthin. I wrote in the December 2014 issue about how some scientists believe this carotenoid is the most powerful antioxidant in the world—protecting you at the cellular level. And now, researchers have found that astaxanthin also helps inhibit UV radiation in our bodies. I recommend 4 mg per day.3

Pine bark extract (Pycnogenol) and milk thistle. Both have been found to protect against the skin redness caused by UV rays.4.5 I recommend 50-100 mg of Pycnogenol per day and 200 mg per day of a standardized milk thistle extract.

Researchers also found that applying a lotion containing vitamin E after you’ve been in the sun can help offset and potentially repair some of the damage done by the UV rays. As is the case with choosing a sunscreen, though, just be careful to look for a vitamin E product that uses natural ingredients.


Choosing a sunscreen

There’s certainly no shortage of sunscreens in your drug store, grocery store, or department store cosmetics counter. So how do you choose the best one?

First of all, stay away from products that are loaded with chemicals, which can disrupt your endocrine system. Of course, that’s easier said than done. The only totally natural sunscreen is titanium dioxide or zinc oxide—the white paste that lifeguards dollop on their noses. These minerals usually need to be combined with other ingredients to make them spreadable—and transparent—on your skin.

So it’s important to choose a product that uses organic or natural ingredients to do that. My personal favorites are sunscreens by Lavera, Aubrey, Earth’s Best, and Soleo.

Some sunscreens may also contain natural botanicals such as licorice, curcumin, aloin, ginsenoside, or epicatechin. Research shows that these ingredients all protect against UV damage. And they have a natural sun protection factor of at least 15.6,7


1Premi S, et al. “Chemiexcitation of melanin derivatives induces DNA photoproducts long after UV exposure.” Science2015: 347(6224):842-847

2Shapira N. “Nutritional approach to sun protection: a suggested complement to external strategies.” Nutr Rev 2010; 68(2): 75-863Yoshihisa Y, et al. “Astaxanthin, a xanthophyll carotenoid, inhibits ultraviolet-induced apoptosis in keratinocytes.” Exp Dermatol. 2014; 23(3): 178-83

4Saliou C, et al. “Solar ultraviolet-induced erythema in human skin and nuclear factor-kappa-B-dependent gene expression in keratinocytes are modulated by a French maritime pine bark extract.” Free Radic Biol Med. 2001; 30(2): 154-60.

5University of Colorado Denver. “Silibinin, found in milk thistle, protects against UV-induced skin cancer.” ScienceDaily, 1/30/13

6Mukherjee P, et al. “Bioactive compounds from natural resources against skin aging.” Phytomedicine 2011; 19(1):64-73

7Kühnl J, et al. “Licochalcone A activates Nrf2in vitro and contributes to licorice extract-induced lowered cutaneous oxidative stress in vivo.” Experimental Dermatology, 2015; 24 (1): 42.