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Released: June 05, 2002

Eating Right Helps Protect Skin From Sun, Too

MANHATTAN, Kan. – Grab some sunblock, a straw hat and your protective clothing, then also think about the food you eat to help guard against skin cancer.

That’s the advice from Mary Meck Higgins, a nutrition educator at Kansas State University, who says that many common foods can help protect skin against damage caused by normal exposure to the sun.

"My recommendation is definitely to use the sunscreen. In addition, eat a healthful, well-balanced diet so that you get more of the nutrients you need," Higgins said. "When we eat we’re not only nourishing the inside of our bodies, but also keeping our skin healthy."

Tanning a Sign of Good – or Poor – Health?

MANHATTAN, Kan. – Beautifully-bronzed bodies on a beach may seem to be a sign of a person’s active lifestyle and good health, but in reality it’s probably a sign of poor skin health.

Tanning and prolonged exposure to the sun damages skin cells that, over time, can lead to skin cancer, said Mary Meck Higgins, a nutrition educator with K-State Research and Extension.

There is at least one known benefit of sun exposure. Higgins said 10 to 15 minutes of sun exposure each day will help the body make vitamin D in skin. But, she says, "we also can get that through fortified food products, such as milk with vitamin D added."

"Other exposure to the sun doesn’t help us at all," she said.

In addition to using sunblock and protective clothing, including sunglasses that block ultraviolet light, people can decrease negative effects of sun exposure by choosing a diet rich in whole grain products, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, fish and more.

For more information on nutrition and health, interested persons can contact their local Extension office.

In addition to helping prevent skin cancer, good nutrition can help reduce wrinkles later in life. When the body gets the nutrients it needs, it is better able to replenish damaged skin and other cells.

The sun is the biggest culprit for causing skin damage. Studies using special photography have shown skin damage from the sun in children as young as four years old. Freckles and liver spots, for example, can be a sign of sun damage, Higgins said.

But, she adds, a healthy diet can partially offset the effects of being out in the sun: "The food you eat on a regular basis influences the amount of damage the sun has on the skin."

"There’s a variety of ways that nutrients work to protect skin," Higgins said. "Some foods have antioxidants – such as vitamins A, E and C; and selenium – that help skin repair damaged cells. Some of the best food sources include fruits and vegetables, whole grain products, nuts, seeds, legumes and green tea.

"The antioxidants in foods are good for the skin because when oxygen is loose – that is, the molecule is not attached to anything – it causes damage to cells," Higgins said. "Aging of the skin is speeded up in the presence of these molecules. Also, cancer cells can form as a result of the oxidation process. Thus, we need to nourish the body’s cells with antioxidants."

"If you have lots of antioxidants in your diet," she adds, "they reduce cell damage, and the cell is better able to repair itself and be healthy."

Some foods contain nucleic acids – called RNA, which is a nutrient that is important but not crucial for daily intake, Higgins said. Nucleic acids help restore a cell’s energy and help replenish the wear and tear that happens to a cell.

Higgins said some of the best foods for nucleic acids are tuna, salmon, cod, shellfish, liver, other meats, poultry, lentils and beans.

"Eating fatty fish, including salmon, is also recommended because they contribute beneficial fatty acids to the diet that help protect the skin from sun damage," she said.

It is also important to drink plenty of fluids: water, juices, milk, soups, and more. When skin is dehydrated, Higgins says it "loses much of its ability to protect us from the environment."

Nutrition studies have supported the importance of healthful eating practices in protecting skin. According to Higgins, one study looked at people of varying ethnic backgrounds. Those who had less wrinkling of skin later in life had a diet high in vegetables, olive oil, legumes and fish; and had eaten less butter, margarine, milk products and sugary foods.

In general, she adds, "We know that a healthy body relies on good nutrition and good exercise habits. Eating according to the Food Guide Pyramid is an excellent way to ensure a balanced diet. The skin is one of the largest organs in our body. In order to keep our skin healthy, we need to take in the nutrients that will help us do that."

For more information on nutrition, interested persons can contact their local Extension office.


K-State Research and Extension is a short name for the Kansas State University Agricultural Experiment Station and Cooperative Extension Service, a program designed to generate and distribute useful knowledge for the well-being of Kansans. Supported by county, state, federal and private funds, the program has county Extension offices, experiment fields, area Extension offices and regional research centers statewide. Its headquarters is on the K-State campus, Manhattan.

Story by:
Pat Melgares, News Coordinator
K-State Research& Extension News

Additional Information:
Mary Meck Higgins is at 785-532-1671