The summer months are here, and outdoor activities are on the rise! Here’s how you can keep your skin healthy, soothe skin after sun exposure, and prevent sunburns using natural approaches.

‌‌‌‌What Happens When You Get a Sunburn? 

Most people are surprised to learn that sunburns are actually a type of radiation burn. Yes, you read that right! 

The sunlight that brightens our planet during the daytime is just one type of a wide spectrum of energy rays that are produced by the sun. Other types of energies emitted by the sun include x-rays, gamma rays, and ultraviolet radiation, to name just a few.  Ultraviolet-A and ultraviolet-B rays from the sun are sometimes abbreviated UVA and UVB. Together they are referred to as “UVR” or ultraviolet radiation. 

Some UVR passes through the ozone layer of our atmosphere and can penetrate the top layer of our skin. This is a good thing because UVR actually helps humans produce vitamin D—an incredibly important nutrient for immune function, mood, and bone health. It also helps us produce beta-endorphin, a feel-good neurochemical that helps boost our mood and reduces pain. 

The downside of these UVR rays is that they can damage our cells and our DNA and RNA when we’ve been exposed to too many of them for too long. (Think, a long afternoon in the direct sunlight without sun protection). 

UVA rays in particular can also create what are known as free radicals, or oxidants, in our epidermal and dermal tissues, which damage cell membranes by oxidizing them. This oxidative damage impairs cell signaling and creates an environment of oxidative stress in our bodies, which over time can damage organs like our hearts, blood vessels, and brain. Not good, to say the least!

The redness or damage you see from sunburn is actually the same redness or damage you’d see from a radiation burn. A sunburn is just your body’s way of telling you that your DNA and RNA have been damaged and that there are too many free radicals in your system. It’s the body’s best way of telling us to take a break from the sun, allow our skin to heal, and take better care of our skin the next time we go outside.

‌‌‌‌What Natural Ingredients Can Help Skin Heal After Sunburn?

It should be stated that prevention is always the best medicine and that it’s a much better strategy to never get a burn in the first place than to try to reduce skin damage after it occurs. You can never completely reverse sun damage, no matter how many products you apply or take, so please read the next section about how to prevent sun damage (some of the tips may surprise you!).

Aloe Vera

Aloe vera is probably among the most well-known plant medicines for helping to soothe sunburned skin. We think it works to provide relief in two ways—first by cooling the skin, and second, by helping skin to heal by providing it with antioxidants. Aloe works a lot like a Band-Aid does—it doesn’t undo the wound, but it helps to protect the wounded skin while it’s healing naturally. The best forms of aloe to use on your skin are aloe preparations that are organic or come with minimal additives and no fragrances. Note: because aloe doesn’t provide any sun protection, it’s not an effective sunscreen and you shouldn’t try to use it as one. Using it before sun exposure will not decrease your chances of getting burned.

Vulnerary Herbal Oils and Creams

Vulnerary herbs can help skin heal after burns and wounds by providing it with a protective barrier and by delivering key nutrients to tissues that they need to heal. Calendula cream, for example, is a popular vulnerary herbal preparation that can help the skin to heal from burns more quickly. Other vulnerary herbal creams include comfrey and centella (also known as gotu kola). 

For a more refreshing type of relief, keep these creams or oils in the refrigerator to cool them down before using them. The reduced temperature will provide a cooling relief when you apply them to your skin that can help to relieve some of the pain associated with sunburn.

St. John’s wort is another vulnerary herb and it comes in an oil that can be applied to the skin to help with healing from burns of all types, but it comes with a very important warning: Do not apply St. John’s wort oil before you go into the sun or you’ll get a very bad sunburn very quickly. If you do apply St. John’s wort oil, apply it at night onto sunburned areas, then shower it off after a few hours. Make sure that you’ve completely removed it from your skin before going into the sun again.

‌‌‌‌How Can We Prevent Sunburn?

Preventing sunburns is the absolute best method for avoiding sun-induced skin damage. Here are my favorite evidence-based tips for doing so.

Use the UV Index to Avoid Harsh Rays

The amount of UV radiation that reaches the earth’s surface actually varies throughout the day in a predictable pattern. We can measure it using something called the UV index, which is reported (along with temperature, wind conditions, etc.) by most weather agencies each day in the summer. The UV index provides you with a rating between 0-10. Ten is the highest UVR rating, and 0 means that no UVR is reaching the earth’s surface at that moment. 

Typically, mid-day hours (between 10am - 4pm) are when the concentration of UVR is the highest. If you can, try to avoid activities that require you to stay in direct sunlight during this time. Use your weather app or a local weather website to check the UV index for the day and plan activities, and even clothing, around this if possible. 

The UV index varies based on the time of year and cloud coverage, so don’t make assumptions if you can help it. For example, if you’re planning to go for a walk or run, check the forecast and try to pick a time in the early morning or late evening when the sun is not strong and the UV index is under 2. You should still stay sun-aware and consider using at least physical barriers when outside. But, by choosing a time of day with a UV index of 0, you avoid having to wear protective gear outdoors and can stay out as long as you’d like, versus planning a walk during the day when the UV index is 8, and you’ll need to reapply SPF routinely, seek shelter sooner, and keep your protective gear on.

Wear Protective Clothing to Increase Shade

Shade is a good preventive medicine—it naturally reduces UVR without the need to apply chemicals to the skin. It’s a type of physical sunscreen. Baseball caps, bucket hats, sun hats, long-sleeved shirts, long pants, umbrellas, and shade from trees, buildings, or other structures all protect us from direct sunlight by creating shaded areas over our bodies. Research shows that you can reduce (but not eliminate) the amount of UV radiation that reaches your skin by standing in the shade (95% reduction), under a sun umbrella (about an 80% reduction in UVR), or using sun hats (15-75%). Remember that you still have to wear sunscreen if you’re out all day in the sun even under a physical sunscreen like an umbrella, because they don’t completely block all UVR.

Consume Antioxidants (But Not for Sun Protection)

There’s been a lot of hype recently about antioxidants protecting skin from sun damage. Clients have been asking me if they can take a sunscreen pill instead of using a physical sunscreen lotion or barriers like the ones listed above. Unfortunately, the answer is no, and here’s why. 

Our bodies are designed to thrive when we consume a diet that’s rich in omega 3s and antioxidant-containing plant foods because these foods help us to repair our cell membranes.  Cell membranes are constantly damaged by activities of daily living, including movement, breathing, and more. It’s natural to incur a small amount of damage, and healthy foods help us repair that damage. So, whether or not you go into the sun, you should consume plenty of omega 3s and antioxidants every single day just to stay healthy. 

But antioxidants and omega 3s don’t prevent exposure to radiation or other harmful oxidative stresses, and they can’t completely protect cells from the damage caused by those exposures, because spending hours in the sun will create a radiation load that exceeds your body’s ability to handle naturally. In the same way you wouldn’t drink green tea each day and expect it to prevent a burn caused by you touching a hot pan on a stovetop, you shouldn’t expect the antioxidants in green tea to prevent sunburn. 

Antioxidants can help to enhance the effects of chemical sunscreens and may help you stay in the sun for a few minutes longer before experiencing a burn, but you shouldn’t give up sunscreen or expect to stay in the sun for hours simply because you’ve increased your intake of antioxidants. It just doesn’t work like that. 

I’ve heard the argument that before sunscreen was invented people used a healthy diet to prevent sunburns. But this isn’t completely true. First, our earth’s ozone layer was the original sunscreen throughout most of human history, and it has been reduced over the last two centuries by human activity and damage to the environment. Ozone reflects UVR back into the atmosphere, and the reduction in the ozone layer means that more harmful UV rays than ever are reaching the earth’s surface. So, you can’t expect natural foods to completely protect you from this unnatural level of radiation. 

Additionally, humans used to spend much more time outside throughout most of the year. This allowed them to slowly and naturally increase the melanin content of their sun-exposed skin, which provided natural sun protection by the time the height of summer rolled around. Most of us now spend our time under roofs and don’t have a base tan by the time we hit the beach in the summer, so we lack the natural protection of melanin. This is why our skin is vulnerable to DNA and RNA damage from UV radiation, and why skin cancers like melanoma are more common in areas of the world that tend to receive the least amount of sunlight in fall, winter, and spring. 

So, now that you’ve learned to think like a scientist about nutrition and sun exposure, here’s the good news: we do know about certain types of antioxidants when it comes to overall health and, particularly, skin health.

Use Antioxidant-Containing Skin Creams

Green tea creams and EGCg-containing creams are thought to increase skin health by providing skin with antioxidants, precursors to collagen formation, and hydration. There is some evidence that green tea and EGCg cream can help to reduce the damage from UVR in laboratory settings when it’s applied before sun exposure. To mimic this in real life, apply green tea or EGCg cream at night or in the mornings, under SPF-containing creams. The extra protection will make your skin happy and it can’t hurt! 

Vitamin C and vitamin E creams, similarly, have shown mild abilities in the lab to help boost skin’s own protective abilities against sun damage. I double-checked with one of iHerb’s makeup experts, Kylie Hawkins, about how to use these products because they can be a bit tricky to use when it comes to sun-exposure timing. Vitamin C, for example, can be photo-sensitizing, so if you use a vitamin C serum, use it at night and wash it off in the morning a few hours before sun exposure. Great news, though: vitamin E-containing creams can be used before sun exposure, and will enhance the skin-protecting properties of your SPF. Bonus, vitamin E is extremely emollient, which means if you have dry skin it will help to keep it extra hydrated.

Wear Sunscreen

Using products that include SPF is a great way to have everyday protection from sun exposure. Many types of makeup foundations, primers, and moisturizing creams come with SPF added. Pick those up and use them during the summer! 

But those SPF protections you put on in the morning will only last an hour or two, so you should expect to have to reapply SPF at some point during the day, and learn to protect the rest of your skin from sun damage using a sunscreen lotion. 

Sunscreen lotions usually contain one of two types of sunscreens: physical or chemical. 

  •  Physical sunscreens help to reflect the sun’s harmful rays. They are typically high in minerals or metals like zinc and titanium. If you have to choose between types, I’d choose a zinc-based sunscreen. This is because zinc is a mineral that is used by dozens of chemical reactions in the body each day, and it’s an incredible nutrient for our immune system. Titanium, on the other hand, is not an essential nutrient and has to be detoxified by our livers and eliminated by our kidneys and digestive systems. Both can be great options, but if you’re using mineral sunscreens a lot, I’d try to opt for zinc more often than titanium. 
  • Chemical sunscreens, on the other hand, work by converting UVR to heat and releasing it from the skin. They’re easy to apply, come in sprays, lotions, and oils, and typically don’t tint your skin purple or white like mineral-based products can. Try to pick a brand that says ocean-safe if you plan to go into the ocean, as there’s some evidence that chemical sunscreens are impacting our coral reefs. If you can, use a chemical sunscreen when you’re not at the beach, and opt for mineral-based ones over most of your body if you plan to enter the ocean.

 As you can see, there are tons of ways to help your body heal sunburn and to enjoy the sunshine while protecting your skin. Have fun and be safe this summer! 


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