A Dermatologist's Guide to Holistic Sun Protection

At Primally Pure, we're passionate about taking a holistic approach to sun protection, and are excited to dive deeper into this topic with certified dermatologist, Dr. Keira Barr. Keep reading to learn how you can create sun protection by nourishing your body from the inside-out.

What type of sunscreen do you recommend and why? 

"I recommend mineral sunscreens that contain zinc oxide with SPF 30+. They offer broad spectrum coverage, meaning, they offer protection against UVA (“aging rays”) and UVB (“burning rays”) which both contribute to skin cancer formation. Zinc oxide, which is an inorganic UV filter, is an ingredient that is tolerated by most people and can safely be used at all stages of life.

The greatest concerns with chemical sunscreen formulations are skin irritation, their potential impact on the environment, and endocrine disruption. Ingredients like avobenzone offer broad-spectrum coverage, but I have found that many people experience irritation or allergic contact dermatitis when using it - myself and my family included. Other organic UV filters like oxybenzone, homosalate, and octocrylene have also raised concerns because of systemic absorption and damage to the environment."

Generally speaking, what enhances the skin's ability to fight UV damage? 

"Increasing your skin’s resilience is an inside-out and outside-in job. Using topical products and covering up your skin with sun-protective clothing are helpful, but nourishing your skin from the inside out with quality sleep, a nutrient dense diet, supportive movement/exercise, and regulating your stress response are vital to overall skin health." 

What skincare ingredients help protect the skin from UV-damage? 

"Antioxidants can provide sun protection by neutralizing free radicals created by UV exposure. Some of my favorites include vitamins C and E, niacinamide, and various extracts from fruits and plants including aloe vera, papaya, gingko leaf, rosehip oil, marula seed oil, and polyphenols. Vitamins C and E also help to improve the skin’s protective barrier while reducing inflammation. Vitamin C plays an important role in the synthesis of collagen and elastic while vitamin E plays a role in preventing collagen degradation. 

Other plant derived active ingredients can also help protect against blue light, infrared light and air pollution which can contribute to DNA damage and pigmentary changes."

Tell us about the connection between diet and sun protection

"I firmly believe it’s not just about what we eat but how, when and why we eat. Ultimately, stress and our emotions can influence the types and amount of food we choose to eat, which can contribute to skin inflammation or resilience.

That said, there is no “perfect” way of eating. The bottom line is this: focus on adequate hydration, choose whole foods from the cleanest source you can (ideally organic), consume an abundance of antioxidants, incorporate fat, fiber and protein into every meal, and reduce your consumption of added sugars and inflammatory foods."

What specific foods do you recommend consuming?

"Carotenoids and polyphenols possess anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects. Both help to protect the skin from UV exposure. In fact, polyphenols can absorb the entire UVB spectrum of wavelengths and part of the UVA and UVC. This means that polyphenols can actually prevent the penetration of UV radiation into the skin. Carotenoids are most abundant in cooked green leafy vegetables while polyphenols are most abundant in deeply colored fruits and cruciferous vegetables.

Vitamin C rich foods neutralize free radicals caused by ultraviolet light and increase the production of collagen and elastin. Vitamin C has been found to decrease sunburns, promote skin cell renewal, reduce fine lines and wrinkles, and maintain youthful skin resilience.

Vitamin E rich foods have potent anti-inflammatory effects and similar to vitamin C, neutralize free radicals helping prevent cell damage, skin cancer and skin aging. A study in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology highlighted the synergistic effects of taking vitamin C and E supplementation to reduce sunburns and protect against DNA damage. Vitamin E rich foods include avocados, dark green leafy vegetables, anchovies, salmon, carrots, sweet potatoes, olive oil, eggs, organ meats, among others.

Vitamin A rich foods pack a powerful punch. They play an important role in the maintenance and repair of skin tissue, boosts immunity, slows the aging process, neutralizes free radicals, and helps block the formation of cancer. Good sources of vitamin A include liver, fish, eggs, carrots, squash, sweet potatoes, cantaloupe, apricots, mangos, among others.

Healthy fats, foods rich in copper, zinc and selenium, and various spices also provide UV protection in various ways which I explore in depth in my new book called The Skin Whisperer."

What are your thoughts on supplements? Can they provide sun protection?

"While I believe food trumps supplements all day long, our food sources may not offer the level of nutrients we need to maintain optimal wellness and skin health. Before taking any supplements, research the best quality, and check in with your physician to make sure they are appropriate for you. See below for some of my favorites.

Astaxanthin is a carotenoid and comes from microalgae in the Arctic marine environment. It’s considered to be the most potent carotenoid. Studies have found that it protects against UVA-induced DNA damage. 

Niacinamide in both its oral and topical forms has proven to have beneficial effects in acne, rosacea, atopic dermatitis and now skin cancer. Several studies have shown that 500 mg of nicotinamide taken twice daily reduces the rate of new skin pre-cancers (actinic keratosis), basal cell carcinomas and squamous cell carcinomas by 23% in patients with a previous history of non-melanoma skin cancer (NMSC). Her research also suggests that niacinamide may provide similar benefits to melanoma. The jury is still out on whether these benefits translate to people who have never had NMSC.

Polypodium leucotomas (PL) is derived from a tropical fern grown in Central and South America that offers sun protective benefits. It’s an antioxidant with anti-inflammatory, chemoprotective and immunomodulatory effects. As an antioxidant, PL boosts the ability of our body’s own antioxidant systems to help prevent sunburn, neutralize free radicals, upregulate a molecule to suppress tumor formation, and inhibit DNA damage and UV-induced inflammation. A recent study showed that a dose of 240 mg taken twice daily suppressed sunburn and extended the time outdoors before tanning occurred in the skin. These findings suggest that PL offers the potential to be an excellent adjunct to other sun protective measures."

When it comes to preventing skin cancer and optimizing overall skin health, what else do you recommend?

"My top recommendations would be addressing sleep and stress management. 

Melatonin is a hormone that helps with the timing of your circadian rhythm and with general sleep. It plays a key role in skin health for a number of reasons. For one, it helps protect your skin from environmental stressors, especially UV radiation. In fact, melatonin has been shown to be a stronger scavenger of free radicals than vitamin C or vitamin E, both of which have been used to treat cell damage. Melatonin also stimulates the growth of fibroblasts which are responsible for producing collagen and elastin.

Sleep is also when your skin repairs itself the most. While you sleep, your skin rebalances its hydration status and increases its capacity to retain water, which keeps your skin supple and moisturized. A lack of sleep interferes with proper water balance resulting in puffiness, dryness and visible wrinkles.

Stress isn’t necessarily a bad thing, in fact, it’s a normal adaptive response. The challenge is that too many people are in a state of chronic stress activation in our fast paced world. Chronic activation of the stress response means stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline rise and trigger inflammatory chemicals that disrupt skin barrier integrity and lead to immune system dysregulation. Not only does this contribute to skin irritation, degrades collagen and elastin, and increases breakouts and alopecia, but it also creates a microenvironment conducive to skin cancer formation.

The role that trauma and chronic stress play in the cancer life cycle and skin cancer biology can’t be underestimated. Studies* show that chronic activation of our stress response with increased levels of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline contribute to tumor initiation, progression, metastasis and response to cancer treatment. Early childhood trauma coupled with stressful events in adulthood are among contributing factors to chronic activation of the stress response and have been associated with skin cancer, including basal cell carcinoma and melanoma. 

This is why the focus of the work I currently do is supporting people in healing trauma and teaching them the skills, practices and resources to regulate their nervous system and stress response cycle. Body-based and somatic practices, breathwork, and mindfulness are the foundation of my Somatic Skincare program so people not only improve their skin health, but also feel more comfort and confidence in their skin." 

To learn even more about holistic sun protection follow Dr. Keira Barr on Instagram or visit her website.


*JNCI, 2005 Dec;97(23): 1760–1767.
*Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2012;69(6):618–626.
*Dermatol Res Pract. 2010;2010:483493. 

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A Dermatologist's Guide to Holistic Sun Protection

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Dr. Keira Barr

Dr. Keira Barr blends science with soul as a somatic coach, breathwork guide and dual board certified integrative dermatologist empowering women around the world with the tools needed to help them gain the control, clarity and confidence they crave. As the host of the Skinny Dipping Prescription podcast and creator of Somatic Skin Science, she’s redefining skincare as the embodiment of our lived experience through no B.S. conversations, straight-up truths and tangible, actionable advice. Her work has been featured in MindBodyGreen, Better Homes and Gardens’, Reader’s Digest, Glamour, SELF, Oprah Magazine, and more.