It’s happened to all of us. We’re outside, enjoying the warm sun while gardening, playing, or just lounging around. And for a while, everything seems just fine. Until you start getting that familiar sensation on your skin… the one that lets you know you’ve been in the sun too long. But at that point, it’s already too late.
You’re now part of the sunburn club and wondering what to do next. Well, have no fear because we’re going to unpack this conversation about sunburn, one step at a time. By the time you’re finished reading, you’ll be all set and ready to get back out there and enjoy the sun safely!
First, let’s talk about what happens to your skin when it gets burned from the sun.
How does the skin get sunburned?
Your skin is made up of a thin layer of cells that require certain nutrients to stay healthy. These nutrients should come from the diet, provided you are eating a wide variety of healthy foods. Heavily processed foods including junk food, on-the-go snack foods, and anything high in carbohydrates or sugar, are not only missing these important nutrients but they will actually deplete any nutrients you already have!
Without these essential nutrients, your skin becomes highly vulnerable to any kind of insult and when it becomes damaged, it is unable to protect itself and properly heal. And that’s exactly what happens with prolonged sun exposure. The sun puts ‘pressure’ on the skin, requiring those nutrients to kick in and start doing their job.
In short, sunburn occurs when the skin is unable to protect itself against the sun due to nutritional deficiencies in the body. When this happens, the skin may become red, inflamed, and painful to the touch.
When sunlight touches your skin, it converts the sun’s energy into vitamin D. However, if your body is low in calcium, fatty acids, and other essential minerals, your skin may become sunburned. The good news is you can set your skin up to avoid sunburn.
Nutrients needed to protect the skin
No one would deny that we need to have some exposure to the sun. Not only does the sun improve your mood and provide a wonderful glow to the skin, but it’s one of the primary ways we synthesize vitamin D. There are a few other nutrients that are especially important when it comes to maintaining healthy skin, improving the skin barrier, and protecting us from the burning rays of the sun.
As one of the most abundant minerals in the body, it’s not surprising that calcium would be present in the skin. In fact, every tissue in the body requires calcium to function including your brain and nervous system. Most of your calcium is stored in the bones and teeth. However, the body maintains a reservoir in the bloodstream for the body to use at a moment's notice.
The presence of calcium in the skin is essential, not only to maintain a healthy appearance but for optimal protection against damaging elements in our environment, especially the sun. It is fairly easy to obtain sufficient calcium from the diet since most vegetables contain appreciable amounts. However, many people don’t eat enough veggies, leaving them at greater risk of deficiency.
These are some common foods rich in calcium:
- Chia seeds
- Brazil nuts
Bok choy, collard, and mustard greens are also great sources of calcium.
But despite consuming plenty of calcium-containing foods, there’s a lurking villain that could sabotage your best efforts. Without adequate hydrochloric acid and other gastric secretions in the stomach, the calcium remains ‘locked’ inside the food.
Here’s how it works: Calcium doesn’t magically jump out of a spinach leaf and into the bloodstream. Certain chemical reactions in the stomach break down the spinach, liberating all the wonderful vitamins, minerals, and nutrients to be absorbed into your body. Without a healthy digestive system and proper gastric juices, your calcium could end up passing right on through without ever being absorbed.
If you are experiencing heartburn, reflux, bloating, or have general feelings of indigestion, this may be an indicator that your upper digestive system isn’t working as well as it should be. We recommend working with a qualified functional medicine practitioner or natural health specialist that can provide specific recommendations and support to improve your digestive function.
Essential Fatty Acids
What exactly are essential fatty acids or EFAs and what do they have to do with sunburn?
Well, I’m glad you asked.
Essential fatty acids are not ‘acidic’ in the body nor are they harmful. Essential fatty acids are just as the name implies – a certain type of fat that is essential for human health. But here’s the catch: these EFAs cannot be manufactured inside the body. That means the only way we can get them is through dietary intake. Period.
Without getting too technical, there are two basic types of essential fatty acids: omega-3 and omega-6. The modern diet is typically high in omega-6 which are found in nuts, seeds, eggs, plant-based oils, and poultry. Conversely, omega-3 fatty acids are primarily found in cold-water fish, walnuts, and flax seeds. Because we don’t eat as many of those foods as we should, supplementation may be needed to maintain healthy omega-3 levels.
Essential fatty acid supplements to consider:
- Tuna Omega-3 oil
- Calamari oil
- Flaxseed oil
- Evening Primrose oil
When it comes to avoiding sunburn and overall skin health, essential fatty acids have a very important role to play. Not only do EFAs maintain healthy-looking skin in general, but they are needed to convert the sun into vitamin D while you’re outside. They also play an important role in making sure you have sufficient calcium in the skin to protect against sunburn.
Fatty acids + calcium = healthy skin
They say it takes two. And as it has to do with protecting the skin from being damaged by the sun, there’s no better pair than calcium and essential fatty acids. When both are present in the skin, the likelihood of sunburn is greatly diminished. Here’s how it works.
Essential fatty acids act like a shuttle bus, picking up calcium from the bloodstream and transporting it to the skin. Once they arrive, they fortify the skin barrier, protecting it from environmental insults which include the sun. They are basically ensuring the skin is as healthy as it can be. When there’s enough calcium and fatty acids in the skin, the chances of getting sunburned are greatly reduced.
But there’s a catch: after being in the sun for a while, the calcium and fatty acids in the skin can become depleted, leaving you more vulnerable to burn. As the sun hits the skin, these precious resources get used up in the process, leaving you with a deficiency. However, if you have some supplemental calcium and fatty acids on hand (flaxseed oil is one of our favorites), these can quickly remediate the problem by providing the right support for the skin once again.
Help for sunburned skin
If you’ve ever experienced a sunburn, you know how miserable it can be. In extreme cases, a more severe sunburn can leave you feeling like you have the flu. So, whether it’s just a little too much pink or if you feel like a lobster, here are a few tricks to help your skin get back to normal in no time.
The gel from the aloe vera plant has been used for thousands of years as a treatment for the skin. The best option is to cut the aloe leaf open and scrape out some of the slimy interior, spreading it all over the sunburned area. It is incredibly cooling, soothing, and most importantly, will help stop the burn and begin the healing process. It also contains numerous antioxidant and antibacterial benefits.
If you don’t have access to an aloe vera plant, you can purchase aloe gel commercially, but these products require preservatives in order to extend the shelf life. Look for ones that are clear in color and organic if possible.
Taking a cool bath or applying a damp, cool rag to your skin can also provide relief and help reduce the pain and inflammation caused by the sunburn. You can also add a few drops of lavender essential oil to Epsom salts or Celtic Sea Salt and add them to the bath water to help accelerate your skin’s healing.
Shea butter is a thick and wonderfully healing moisturizer for the skin. What makes shea butter so unique is how it’s made. Shea trees in West Africa produce nuts which is where the butter comes from. The fat is extracted from the nuts and used as a moisturizer for the skin. And not coincidentally, this fat is considered an essential fatty acid for the skin! It is rich in vitamins A and E, which also benefit the skin’s barrier.
Keeping Your Skin Healthy During the Summer
In addition to practicing general sun safety such as wearing a hat, staying in the shade, and using organic, non-toxic sunscreen, using calcium and fatty acids to further protect the skin is essential. These important nutrients will help you build a strong and healthy barrier to keep you and your loved ones safe while enjoying the sun.
So be sure to eat plenty of calcium-rich foods, fatty fish, and keep some supplemental calcium and flax seed oil on hand to use if you’ll be in the sun for an extended period of time. And most of all, make sure you enjoy every single moment you can! These are memories in the making!