"Plants make lycopene and other carotenoids to protect themselves from sun damage, and when humans eat those plants—or more accurately, the fruits of those plants—carotenoids are deposited in the skin and appear to have a similar effect, blocking the damage from UV light and decreasing the incidence of sunburn," says Dr. Stephenson. Research has shown that mice that eat a tomato-rich diet get fewer skin cancers. And because mice process carotenoids in a similar way as humans, "it’s reasonable to project that people who eat a lot of tomatoes, in particular, might also enjoy this same benefit of greater resistance to the most common types of skin cancers."
- Stacie Stephenson, DC, CNS, functional medicine doctor and founder of VibrantDoc
As you're getting more sun exposure—especially if you're prone to burning—getting some extra protection from your diet is worth it.
"You can only do so much for the skin if you start from the outside," says Dr. Stephenson. "Real, meaningful skin care has to come from both directions—from the outside in, and from the inside out. What you eat and drink are the primary means you have for influencing skin from the inside out, whether you’re trying to protect skin in the summer or lubricate and hydrate it in the winter."
But remember, this doesn't mean you can just eat tomatoes and ditch the sunscreen. Getting more lycopene in your diet is an additional sun-protective step, not an SPF alternative. "Just because you get some protection from the inside out doesn’t mean you also shouldn’t add extra protection from the outside in," says Dr. Stephenson. Look for broad-spectrum sunscreens, like the Supergoop! Unseen Sunscreen SPF 40 ($20 to $36), that will protect your skin from both UVA and UVB rays, and be sure to reapply every two hours (or every 80 minutes if you're in water).
To reap the sun-protective benefits of tomatoes, you can eat them raw or cooked.
"Processed tomatoes actually seem to have a greater effect since they are more concentrated," says Dr. Stephenson. "Tomato sauce and tomato paste have more carotenoids, including lycopene, than fresh tomatoes. Several studies examining the sunburn-protecting effect of tomatoes used tomato paste, as this was the richest source of carotenoids and the target phytonutrient, lycopene, being studied."
Dr. Stephenson likes to get her lycopene from pasta sauce and gazpacho.
"I like a light sauce made with tomato paste, vegetable broth, and a splash of coconut milk over a small amount of pasta with lots of deeply colored veggies," she says. "This adds even more lycopene and other phytonutrients. I like different varieties and colors of cherry tomatoes, peppers, carrots, and dark leafy greens. I also like to whip up a quick-chilled gazpacho in the blender with whatever garden produce we have on hand. It’s a great way to use up a glut of tomatoes."
Try making this delicious tomato-topped pizza alternative:
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