Since you can't hide under a towel all summer, an approach that incorporates the right foods, stress management, sufficient SPF -- and that also lets you live your life -- makes for the best defense.
Fortify with Food
In the summertime we crave foods that act as a sort of internal sunscreen. Fresh fruits and vegetables -- watermelon, pineapple, raspberries, and brightly hued bell peppers -- are rich in antioxidants, protective molecules that help fight off free-radical damage triggered by sun exposure. Left unchecked, free radicals can cause inflammation in the body, which may eventually harm DNA and lead to skin and other cancers.
A study in the Journal of Nutrition showed that a mix of carotenoids -- a group of antioxidants including lycopene (found in tomatoes and watermelon), lutein (in spinach and other dark-green veggies), and beta-carotene (in orange, red, and yellow produce) -- reduced skin's susceptibility to ultraviolet damage.
Eat the Rainbow
As a rule, the richer and darker the color of your produce, the better. Aim for a mix of yellows, reds, greens, and purples. "You'll get a variety of antioxidants, which is important because they protect cells in different ways," says Hasan Mukhtar, Ph.D., director and vice chair for research in the department of dermatology at the University of Wisconsin Medical Science Center in Madison.
Some antioxidants work by neutralizing free radicals before they penetrate the skin and cause inflammation. Others throw a bucket of water on inflammation and could even repair DNA damage that can occur despite our best efforts. A few, like green tea, may do all three.
Antioxidant-laced water, juices, or sun-specific supplements also deliver protective benefits, says Valori Treloar, M.D., a holistic dermatologist in Newton, Massachusetts. "You'll get select nutrients, but when possible whole foods are better," she points out. "In addition to antioxidants, they offer vitamins and minerals, which work synergistically to improve the overall health of the skin."
Stress reduction may boost skin's UV resilience as well. A study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute found that stressed mice were more likely to develop squamous cell skin cancers.
"It's believed that chronic stress weakens the immune system," Treloar explains. When tension is chronic, our natural defense systems don't work as well, and enemies -- or free radicals, in the case of sun exposure -- slip through the cracks.
"Adopting regular de-stressing activities will help you cope better when you're under fire and reduce the impact of stress," Treloar says. Also get yourself to bed earlier; sleep deprivation taxes the entire body. "When you're well rested, you're better at handling stress," she notes.
Develop a Shade Strategy
You can still enjoy the delicious feeling of a sunny day -- just minimize time spent in the strongest rays. "Have lunch in the shade when the sun is at its peak, then head to the beach after three," Treloar suggests. Plan your bike ride, jog, or dog walk for the early morning or late afternoon.
You also want to dress for the weather: Choose sun-protective clothing or any tightly woven fabric. "If you hold a shirt up to a lightbulb and it doesn't let light pass through, it's fine," says Loretta Ciraldo, M.D., a dermatologist in Miami. Wear a wide-brimmed hat and UV-protective sunglasses for even brief sun exposure, like running from the dry cleaners to the deli, Ciraldo suggests.
Don't waste your sun time on incidental exposure. Whether you're at home or at work, draw the blinds if sunlight's pouring onto your desk or lunch table. Even the UV-coated glass that's often found in cars allows some rays in.
Choose the Right Block
With so many sunscreen and SPF products on the market, it's easy to get confused -- or to assume that you're covered even when your protection could be better. Being a smart shopper means understanding the pros and cons of both chemical and physical sunblocks, and choosing a product that's right for you. Our sunscreen buyer's guide can not only help you be a better consumer, but will also make sure you're using your sun protection correctly.