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Antioxidants Vs. Sunscreen: Which Works Better?

Affiliate Disclosure | in Natural Remedies | by | with 81 Comments

**Deep Breath**

Pressing the “Publish” button has been pretty difficult this week, but we are finally to the part of the series where I think everyone can find some common ground. While it’s true that sunlight improves mood and helps us sleep better, prevents cancer, and cannot be replaced by supplements something else is also true: reckless sun exposure is dangerous.

I’m not just talking about sunburns, though. In my opinion, “recklessness” is also going out in the sun without a protective diet rich in healthy fats and antioxidants. Now, I’m using the term “reckless” loosely here because back when I ate the Standard American Diet (SAD) I simply didn’t know any better. But regardless of intention, I found that when my skin was infused with nutrients from the Standard American Diet (SAD) it simply didn’t perform well in a sunlit environment. When I switched to a traditional diet that changed, and I think there’s a correlation.

Research Says Antioxidants Work Better Than Sunscreen

As you know, antioxidants are a hot topic right now because they eliminate free radicals and reduce cancer risk. Among the substances studied are omega-3 fatty acids, which used to be common in our diet but have been displaced by omega-6 fatty acids thanks to the prevalence of vegetable-based oils such as corn and soy. As our omega-3 ratios have dropped, skin cancer rates have risen. Researchers think there’s a connection.

An Australian study done over 10 years ago showed a 40 percent reduction in melanoma for those who were eating fish, which is rich in omega-3s. And this was without any attention to lowering omega-6 fats.

Slathering On Sunscreen Does Not Prevent Cancer

In this study, the omega-3 fatty acid known as DHA not only stopped cancer cells from continuing their production cycle, it also resulted in apoptosis, which means the cancer cells died. Another study reached the same conclusion, saying “Omega 3 (ω3) fatty acids, including docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), can effectively reduce the risk of skin cancer.”

So, what is going on here? When Dr. Elizabeth Plourde, a Clinical Laboratory Scientist (CLS) who specialized in cancer and DNA research, was recently asked how people who spend a lot of time in the sun should protect themselves, she said:

“Antioxidants are the exact answer. [They] act exactly the same as the sunscreens, and in my book I have a whole chapter of all the antioxidants that have been proven to be protective . . . to act just like a sunscreen. And there’s many of them, there really are. Our skin is so well-designed that when the solar rays hit it the antioxidants that are in the body actually move up and form a protective shield and act just like sunscreen.“(emphasis mine) ¹

Or better than sunscreen, actually. In her book, Sunscreen: Biohazard, Dr. Plourde explains:

“ROS are unstable molecules containing oxygen that function as free radicals, which are capable of causing cellular damage. The chemicals utilized for sunscreen cannot dissipate the energy as efficiently as the body’s own built-in defense, melanin, which is the brown pigment that is made by the melanocytes in the basal layer of the skin. The use of sunscreen stops the body’s natural process of creating more melanin to naturally protect the cells.

The use of UVB only sunscreens, allowing people to stay in the sun longer, does not stop the UVA rays from penetrating into the lower layers of the skin where they create a greater increase in the amount of free radicals and ROS than would have occurred without the use of sunscreen. Experiments show the sunscreens protect for the first 20 minutes, but after 60 minutes the three sunscreen chemicals octocrylene (OCO), the cinnamate OMC, and benzophenone BP3 actually generate more ROS in the skin compared to using no sunscreen.” (emphasis mine)

Now, if you’re thinking that antioxidants don’t really work because people who wear sunscreen stay pale and people who eat a nutrient dense diet and go out in the sun tan, consider this:

What is most amazing about melanin and which most people don’t know, is that its photochemical properties make it an excellent photoprotectant. This means it absorbs harmful UV-radiation and transforms the energy into harmless heat through a chemical reaction known as “ultrafast internal conversion”. This property enables melanin to disperse more than 99.9% of the absorbed UV radiation as heat, protecting us from UV damage. (source)

Melanin as a photoprotectant . . . kind of cool, huh?

Note: Suncreens made with zinc oxide and healthy oils/antioxidants work differently than chemical sunscreens. They are not perfect and the new generation of nano-particle sized zinc may actually increase cancer risk, but there are a few you can buy. I’ll be talking more about that later along with ideas for making your own. Titanium dioxide is not a good choice according to Dr. Pluorde because it rapidly photodegrades)

Now, I’d Love To Share . . .

My personal list of “must have” antioxidant-rich foods, but there are just way too many. A traditional, nutrient-dense diet is rich in them by default, but there are a few worth mentioning because they have been found effective for UV protection:

  • Virgin Coconut Oil – Dr. Pluorde did not specifically mention this one in her book and I am not aware of any studies to corroborate my experience, but I have used coconut oil topically with success on myself and my littles for the past few years (no burns). According to Pluorde, antioxidants work when taken internally and when applied directly to the skin, and research with several edible oils and tea solutions placed on the skin confirm this. For an deeper look at why virgin coconut oil is considered a sunscreen by many check out this post. (Please keep in mind that this is virgin coconut oil only because it contains the highest level of antioxidants, and that oils extracted with harsh solvents are not recommended. Here’s where to buy a good quality coconut oil.).
  • Fermented Cod Liver Oil (FCLO) – This one is not on Dr. Pluorde’s list either, but it is so much more than an omega-3 “fish oil.” It contains antioxidants, enzymes, and tons of co-factors and micronutrients we’re still in the process of discovering. In a study where it was placed on the skin it blocked 90% of the suns rays. (source) The only source of traditionally fermented cod liver oil is Green Pasture.
  • Wild salmon/Rainbow Trout and Veggies Such As Red Peppers/Carrots – They  contain astaxanthin, a carotenoid which provides “500 times more antioxidant protection than Vitamin E, and is ten time stronger than Vitamin A.”(source)
  • Fish Oil, Dried Rosemary, Avocado, Eggs, Milk & Yogurt, Spinach – They contain glutathione’s, “one of the body’s most important antioxidants that helps protect against free radical damage in the skin, as well as in the brain. Since glutathione cannot be taken orally, as it is destroyed by the stomach, the body needs to manufacture it from the amino acids: glycine, cysteine, and glutamate. However, selenium, sulfur and Vitamin D are also necessary parts and must be available for the process to take place. This is another benefit of making sure you have enough vitamin D [and sulfur, which many people are deficient in] from either sun exposure or from taking it as a supplement.”

Note: Personally, I avoid overly processed fish oils.Fermented cod liver oil from Green Pastures and unrefined Salmon Oil from Vital Choice are the only products I’ll use.

  • Brightly Colored Fruits and Vegetables, Onions, Garlic & Cocoa – They contain quercetin, which has been found to protect against UV radiation in mice.
  • Blackberries, Wild Raw Blueberries, Raw Peanuts and Red Grapes – They contain resveratrol. “Researchers exposed epidermal skin cells to UVA wavelengths and found that resveratrol protects from ROS generation, increases cell viability, and increases the activity of antioxidant enzymes.”
  • Spices – Ounce for ounce, these are some of the most antioxidant rich sources on the planet.

Note: I buy organic and local whenever possible, because the chemicals used on conventional produce reduce the benefits of antioxidants. For times when that’s not possible The Environmental Working Group has a list of conventional produce that is most heavily sprayed (the dirty dozen) and also ones that usually have the fewest chemicals (the clean fifteen).

So that’s it? Just eat lots of antioxidants?

Birthday pic in the early morning light

Well, no, I think there’s more to it. Omega-3’s are an anti-oxidant, but they’re also a healthy fat. In traditional cultures, the ratio of omegs-6 fats to omega-3 fats was somewhere between 1:1 and 3:1.

However, now that most Americans consume vegetable oils instead of traditional fats such as tallow, lard, coconut oil and butter the ration is between 17:1 and 30:1(source). That’s important, because UVB rays interact the fats in our skin and traditional fats resist oxidation better than vegetable oils. In the studies about fish/fish oil listed above, I believe rebalancing the fat ratios in the body were a vital key to reducing cancer.

Good dietary cholesterol and sulfur are also important pieces to the puzzle says Dr. Seneff, who shared why they’re needed to produce Vitamin D in this post. Among other things, Vitamin D is needed for the body to synthesize the potent antioxidant glutathione.

A Real Food diet naturally contains cholesterol rich foods such as eggs, butter and lard, but sulfur is a little more tricky. Dr. Mercola writes that “Sulfur is derived almost exclusively from dietary protein, such as fish and high-quality (organic and/or grass-fed/pastured) beef and poultry. Meat and fish are considered “complete” as they contain all the sulfur-containing amino acids you need to produce new protein.” Other sources include pastured eggs, garlic, onions, brussel sprouts, asparagus, legumes and wheat germ.


Certain crops grown widely in the 1800’s rapidly depleted sulfur from the soil, so even making an effort to consume these foods may not be enough. “In addition to making sure you’re getting high amounts of [traditionally] sulfur-rich foods in your diet, Dr. Seneff recommends soaking your body in magnesium sulfate (Epsom salt) baths to compensate and counteract sulfur deficiency. She uses about ¼ cup in a tub of water, twice a week. It’s particularly useful if you have joint problems or arthritis.” Another option is to add powdered MSM (biological sulfur) to your water.

So . . . Antioxidants + Fat?

Kind of. I wouldn’t break it down that way, exactly. A nutrient-dense diet is what I’m shooting for with my family because I know that in all aspects – not just sunlight exposure – it fuels beneficial processes within us everyday. For our family, I just don’t trust a SAD diet of processed foods to do that.

I’ve done my best to learn how to maximize the benefits of the sun without causing harm. For instance, I know that Vitamin D is synthesized on the surface of the skin and must stay there for 48 hours in order for us to absorb more than a minimal amount. So we rinse with water after a day in the sun, but only use soap on our armpits and groin area.² TMI, but I had to say it. I also know that sunburns are harmful, which is why I avoid them completely (and of course I make sure that my children do also!).

Here’s what I believe to be some common sense advice from Dr. Mercola:

“You must exercise caution. At the beginning of the season go out in the sun gradually, perhaps as little as 10 minutes a day. Progressively increase your time in the sun so that in a few weeks you will be able to have normal sun exposure with little risk of skin cancer.

Remember never to get burned, that is the key . . .  You can creatively use your clothing to block the sun’s rays during your build-up time.

The bottom line is, please avoid getting sucked into the hype that sunlight is dangerous. It is only dangerous if you are clueless about fat nutrition, which most medical doctors are. If you choose to ignore your omega 6:3 ratio and stay out of the sun, you could limit your risk of skin cancer, but is that worth the risk of getting MS, breast or prostate cancer?”

Slathering On Sunscreen Does Not Prevent Cancer


Wearing suncreen at the beach :)

I think that last statement could be worded in a kinder way, but the bottom line is that a lack of sunlight is correlated with many cancers.

When the Potamus family hits the beach we ease into things, using protective clothing because we know our bodies aren’t used to getting so much sunshine in one day. And sometimes when we can’t get out of the sun for long periods we even (GASP!) wear sunscreen. In my next post I’ll tell you how to make your own with antioxidants and non-nanopartical zinc oxide.

For me, the bottom line is that everything – even water – can be dangerous at high enough doses. Sunlight is no different, but rather than avoid it completely we need to use common sense and make the best choice possible based on our unique situations/families/climates.

What Do You Think?

Disclaimer: I am not a doctor or a nutritionist and this site does not provide medical advice. Please see my full disclaimer here.

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81 Responses to Antioxidants Vs. Sunscreen: Which Works Better?

  1. Trisha says:

    thanks for the great info, as usual! i was wondering if you would advise using more caution with kids than adults, taking into consideration the sensitivity of a baby or toddler’s skin. do you find you need to put the clothes or sunscreen on your kids sooner than yourself?
    my 18-month-old is fair-skinned and seems to turn pink moments after being in the sun. is it true that their skin is thinner, or is is just that i’ve had a lifetime of steady exposure and he has not? we both have a diet rich in the antioxidants and fats you mentioned above.
    i am trying to find a balance between giving him some healthy sun exposure and avoiding a burn–which he has not had yet. i get nervous because it seems like the bad burns show themselves after it’s too late.

  2. Homemade Sunscreen Lotion Bars | The MommypotamusThe Mommypotamus | says:

    […] is shorter than those preserved with chemicals. Most days we skip sunscreen altogether and use antioxidants instead, but on days we are going to be out much longer than usual we do use […]

  3. Lan says:

    Please bear with me… but what exactly is a sunburn? It’s considered one when it hurts, right? If one spend time in the sun (not sunbathing but just doing outdoor activities) and their skin gets a bit darker it’s tan not burned, is that right?

    • Heather says:

      I believe it’s considered a sunburn when it turns pink/red :)

      • Lan says:

        (Bear with me again…) We are not fair-skinned, so it’s rare that we turn pink/red. There is typically no such immediate change in color, but after a day or two of outdoor activities we noticed our skin has become a bit darker. I’ve been wondering what exactly constitutes a sunburn for a while…

  4. Jason says:

    Regarding the no washing for 48 hours after sun exposure: Do you think it’s fair to say that if someone has been out in the sun long enough to get a substantial amount of vitamin D, but washes with soap after 12 hours, roughly 25% of the vitamin D may be absorbed? Also, since I’ve read that the skin of younger people do a better job at synthesizing vitamin D, couldn’t it be feasible that some people may not actually need 48 hours? I’ve heard conflicting information on the length of time it takes for vitamin D to be absorbed from the skin and have heard as little as 90 minutes.

    • Heather says:

      Yes, it’s feasible that not everyone needs 48 hours, but without individual testing I don’t think we could determine who that applies to.

  5. Jeannie Amash says:

    This is by far the very best article I have read about the sun, sunscreen, and fats. I am a professional esthetician and I see it all the time,,, bad diet makes bad skin. I can almost always tell someones diet by examining their skin I “preach ” what you say, and sometimes people listen. I would like to add that millions of gallons of toxic sunscreen wash off into our water systems every year, poisoning aquatic life. Another reason to follow this very good advice that you have given.

  6. Barbara says:

    Do you use the cod liver oil topically and internally? Thanks so much for the helpful information. I’m passing it on to my daughters.

  7. Why we're skipping the sunscreen this summer, and what we're doing instead... says:

    […] us against harmful UV rays. It’s an even greater excuse to eat more delicious blueberries! This is one of my favorite articles comparing antioxidants and sunscreen, written by Heather over at Mommypotamus. As you’ll note, it’s not just about eating […]

  8. LISA KNIGHT says:

    What if I have no melanin? I have vitiligo and am trying to not burn or let whatever normal color i have darken.

    • Clinton says:

      For the love of God, please don’t listen to the author (especially with your skin condition.) Listen to the advice of your dermatologist. Daily use of sunscreen is essential, especially for someone with your condition.

  9. Sue says:

    Growing up in the 1950’s, we spent all our time outdoors. And of course, on the hot days, we were in water. I grew up never hearing the term sunburn. No parent ever called their kids in from outside for fear of burning and there were no sunscreens. I have found that what a person eats has everything to do with your overall health. Don’t forget physical activity, also. Both are very important.

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