Can you prevent sun damage with vitamin C?

Vitamin C and sunburn

As summer is coming into full swing, we unfortunately have to worry about the damage our beloved sunshine might cause our skin. UVA rays can cause aging and melanoma, while UVB rays cause sunburn, epidermal mutations, AND skin cancer when we are exposed to them too often. But, guess what? All of these damaging effects have something in common with our favorite nutrient, vitamin C.

Sun damage can be caused by excess reactive oxygen species

sun damage

All of these detrimental effects that occur when we spend too much time lying by the pool have one thing in common—they are related to oxidative stress and free radicals within the body. Because vitamin C is an antioxidant, it works to destroy the free radicals that are produced from the consequences of UV radiation. Read on to learn how vitamin C can help prevent UV damage both inside and outside of the body!

Topical vitamin C helps prevent sunburn

Topical Vitamin C

One of the reasons that vitamin C is such a popular ingredient in skincare products is because of its great antioxidant abilities, even outside the body. Vitamin C can be used topically, often on the face, to help prevent photoaging or sun damage.

  • One study found that a 10% topical application of vitamin C reduced sunburn cell formation by 40 to 60%. (1)
  • Another study showed that topical application of vitamin C increased the effectiveness of a UVB sunscreen, and using vitamin C with vitamin E significantly increased the effectiveness of UVA sunscreen. (2)

Eating more antioxidants may also prevent sunburn

eating more vitamin c antioxidants

So we know that vitamin C is a great antioxidant inside and outside of the body, but how does that impact the internal damage caused by sun exposure?

Well, researchers have found that when we are exposed to UV radiation, our endogenous antioxidant levels are decreased.

Because of this, one study (3) looked at the potential of an “antioxidant-cocktail” for sunburn prevention. A combination of carotenoids (beta-carotene and lycopene), vitamins C and E, selenium and proanthocyanidins was administered to healthy young females.

The group taking this antioxidant combo saw a decreased grade of UVB damage, and also decreased MMP-1 and MMP-9, which are considered markers of the UV damage process.

Another study (4) looked at the use of antioxidant supplements vitamins C and E on UV damage. Subjects in the experimental group took 2,000 mg of vitamin C and 1,000 IU of vitamin E per day.

The subjects taking these supplements saw an increased tolerance of UV exposure, meaning that the amount needed to cause a sunburn in these subjects INCREASED, while the placebo group became MORE sensitive to the sun.

Important to note, this buffed-up ability to tolerate UV radiation was seen after just 8 days of supplementing with vitamin C and vitamin E!

Amazing vitamin C

amazing vitamin c

If you didn’t already admire vitamin C for its many roles, this antioxidant action for sunburn prevention is just another reason to reach for it. Try increasing your vitamin C intake, or making your own topical vitamin C spray this summer, and report back if you notice you are more resilient toward sun damage!



  1. Farris, P. K. 2005. Topical vitamin C: A useful agent for treating photoaging and other dermatologic conditions. Dermatology Surgery 31(s1):814-818.
  2. Darr, D., et al. 1996. Effectiveness of antioxidants (vitamin C and E) with and without sunscreens as topical photoprotectants. Acta Dermato-Venereologica 76(4):264-268.
  3. Greul, A. K., et al. 2002. Photoprotection of UV-irradiated human skin: An antioxidative combination of vitamins E and C, carotenoids, selenium and proanthocyanidins. Skin Pharmacology and Applied Skin Physiology 15(5):307-315.
  4. Eberlein-König, B., et al. 1998. Protective effect against sunburn of combined systemic ascorbic acid (vitamin C) and d-alpha-tocopherol (vitamin E). Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology 38(1):45-48.