Woman with healthy skin. Foods that fight sun damage can help with healthy skin.

If you want to give your skin a head start on defending itself from the sun’s damaging ultraviolet (UV) rays, you might want to rev up your fruit and vegetable intake before the warm weather really sets in. 

“The skin is your body’s largest organ. So it stands to reason that just as a healthy diet can help keep other organs—like your heart and brain—in better shape, the right foods can do the same for your skin,” says Marvin M. Lipman, M.D., Consumer Reports’ chief medical adviser.

Fruits and vegetables are rich in antioxidants, which help repair damaged cells. “Nutrients like carotenoids, flavonoids, polyphenols, and resveratrol go through the gut, get into the bloodstream, and make their way into the skin,” says Macrene Alexiades, M.D., associate clinical professor of dermatology at the Yale University School of Medicine. “And they actually work as a natural sunscreen by absorbing light.”

More On Sun Protection

When the UV rays hit the skin, they start a cascade of sun damage that can cause burning, skin aging, and skin cancer. The UV light creates molecules called free radicals, and left unchecked, free radicals can alter the DNA in your skin cells. These alterations can lead to the development of skin cancer, including melanoma (the deadliest type of skin cancer).

The sun also increases inflammation, which can lead to further DNA damage. In addition, free radicals speed up the breakdown of collagen in your skin—resulting in signs of aging such as lines, sagging, and uneven skin tone. 

Beyond Fruits and Vegetables

There is strong data that a Mediterranean-type diet gives your skin protection against the sun,” says Doris Day, M.D., clinical associate professor of dermatology at NYU Langone Medical Center.

In addition to a high intake of fruits and vegetables, a Mediterranean diet includes sources of healthy fats, such as nuts, olive oil, and fish, and whole grains, but little red meat. “It fortifies the skin against damage, making it less prone to the ravages of UV exposure.” In fact, despite high levels of sun exposure in the Mediterranean, countries such as Greece, Italy, and Spain have significantly lower rates of skin cancer than the U.S.

A 2008 study published in the International Journal of Epidemiology suggests that there are protective effects from weekly consumption of fish, daily tea drinking, and a high intake of vegetables (especially carrots, cruciferous vegetables, and leafy greens) and fruit (especially citrus). According to the researchers, following a Mediterranean diet that focuses on these foods may reduce the risk of melanoma by about half.

Alexiades also recommends this type of diet as a way of keeping your immune system at its best. “There is no more important factor in skin cancer prevention than the immune system,” she says. “It needs to be strong in order to come in and repair DNA and discard abnormal cells.” 

Sunscreen Supplements: Buyer Beware

It’s always best to get your nutrients in your food whenever possible, and the same goes for those sun-protective antioxidants. Most experts agree that the majority of supplements and drinks purporting to keep you safe in the sun are more hype than help.

“It’s not enough that a product contains one or two possibly protective ingredients,” says Joshua Zeichner, M.D., director of cosmetic and clinical research at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. Just as with other supplements, there’s no guarantee that isolating a nutrient in a pill will have the same benefit as eating foods that contain it.

“Without verifiable data proving a product’s effectiveness, there’s no way to know if that active ingredient is even making it to the bloodstream,” Zeichner says. “My advice is that if a product sounds too good to be true, it probably is.” 

Eating Healthy Isn't Enough

No matter how healthy your diet may be, it can’t take the place of good sun safety habits. “It’s no excuse to say I ate my sunscreen,” Day says. “Food may add value to your sunscreen, but it cannot replace it.” You still need to wear sun-protective clothing and hats; stay out of the sun at midday, when the sun’s UV rays are strongest; and use sunscreen. Apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen when you head outdoors, and reapply every 2 hours or immediately after swimming or heavy sweating. 

Bonus Benefit: Glowing Skin

The same nutrients that may reduce the risk of skin cancer can also help keep the skin looking better.

“A diet rich in antioxidants can actually repair sun damage that’s already been accrued,” Alexiades says. That (combined with sun protection measures, such as using sunscreen) can mean fewer wrinkles and younger-looking skin.

In fact, researchers at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland found that eating more fruits and vegetables can make you more attractive to others.

The carotenoids in orange, yellow, red, and dark green fruits and vegetables can give skin a yellowish or reddish hue. In their studies, the researchers were able to show that changes in skin color were evident in about six weeks and that other people can see the difference, and they respond to it favorably. Participants in one study were asked to look at images of faces and to adjust the color of the skin until each face looked most healthy and attractive. In almost every case, yellower skin was judged most attractive.

This was true not only for Caucasian faces but also in people of color, no matter what the ethnicity or race of the person doing the evaluation.

There is a limit, however. It’s possible to eat so many colorful fruits and vegetables that your skin will take on a distinct orange or yellow color that, though harmless, doesn’t convey health or attractiveness. The St. Andrews researchers say that a modest increase in produce consumption—about two servings a day—is enough to improve the appearance of your skin.