Q&A: Can you use tomatoes as a natural alternative to sunscreen?

Q: With summer officially in full swing, you may be looking for sunscreen alternatives as you spend more time outdoors. Tomatoes have occasionally been touted for their ability to reverse sun damage, but can they really protect your skin from the sun’s harmful rays? 

A: Tomatoes contain lycopene, a carotenoid that gives most red fruits and vegetables their color, and is known for its antioxidant properties connected with skin health. It is also said to boost the natural protective mechanisms of our cells, said Karin Hermoni, head of science and nutrition at Lycored, a nutritional research company.

But don’t even think of giving up an ounce of your Coppertone or Banana Boat, Hermoni said.

“No way should tomatoes replace sunscreen or a sun-conscious lifestyle,” she added.

Over the years, many studies have looked at the connection between the red fruit — often thought to be a vegetable — and sun damage.

In 2008, researchers at the Universities of Newcastle and Manchester in Great Britain determined that eating five tablespoons of standard tomato paste with a bit of olive oil every day will give the equivalent sun protection factory (SPF) of 1.3.

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Our skin faces different challenges, said Hermoni. In addition to sun exposure, which can accelerate aging and increase risk of skin cancer, there are other environmental factors such as pollution, smoking and climate, stress and lack of sleep that can wreak havoc with our skin, she said. But a healthy diet that contains foods with lycopene can help balance out some of the damage.

Other sources of lycopene include watermelon, red grapefruit and papaya, said Hermoni.

But not strawberries. “They have other pigments,” said Hermoni said.

And, not all tomatoes are created equal.

Yellow tomatoes – think of the explosively sweet Sun Gold variety – can contain far less lycopene than their red counterparts and in some cases none at all. However, yellow tomatoes contain lutein, which is found in egg yolks and leafy green vegetables like kale and can reduce the risk of chronic eye diseases, including age-related macular degeneration and cataracts.

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It’s also important to take into consideration how to prepare your tomatoes.

“We hear a lot from nutritionists that raw fruits and vegetables can provide more benefit,” Hermoni said. But carotenoids are oil soluble, which means adding a little olive oil dressing to a tomato salad or cooking tomatoes with a healthy oil will help absorb the lycopene, she said.

The amount of lycopene in tomatoes can vary with the seasons and variety. A person’s genetics may also play a part is how much carotenoids they can absorb

To reap the health benefits of the fruit, Hermoni recommends eating three to five tomatoes three times a week, but there really is no magical number. Eat too many tomatoes, though, and it might give you a bit of digestive upset, she said.

Overall, Hermoni suggested a healthy diverse diet. And, she said, wear your sunscreen.