The human mind prefers a healthy carotenoid glow over a suntan

In spite of the well-known damaging effects of the sun on our skin, many of us still perceive a tan as healthy-looking. But you don’t need to risk the health of your skin in the sun or a tanning bed to make it look healthy - the sun isn’t the only factor that can alter skin color.

Carotenoids are a group of 600 antioxidants including alpha-carotene, beta-carotene, lycopene, lutein, zeaxanthin, and astaxanthin. The richest sources of carotenoids are green, orange, and red vegetables and fruits. Many health-promoting phytochemicals, such as carotenoids, flavonoids, and phenols are pigment molecules that provide both attractive colors and health benefits. We are drawn to the vibrant colors of fresh produce that signal health benefits, and a new study has found that we can discern with our eyes how healthy the diet of a potential mate is.


Pigmentation in many species is perceived as a sign of health – birds for example. Carotenoids (both dietary and self-produced) are responsible for the bright feather colors of male birds, which make them more attractive to potential mates. There is evidence that in birds, dietary carotenoids do not merely serve this cosmetic purpose – increased carotenoid intake in birds may also improve color vision, sperm quality, and the health of offspring. [1]

One study investigated people’s perception of skin ‘lightness’ and ‘yellowness’ – yellowness is influenced by both carotenoids and melanin (melanin increases in response to sun exposure). Researchers asked subjects to choose from sets of photos of two different skin colors – one whose yellowness was due to melanin, and one due to carotenoids – which skin color appeared healthier. Subjects consistently chose carotenoid coloration over melanin coloration. [2]

According to first author of the paper Ian Stephen, “We found that, given the choice between skin colour caused by suntan and skin colour caused by carotenoids, people preferred the carotenoid skin colour, so if you want a healthier and more attractive skin colour, you are better off eating a healthy diet with plenty of fruit and vegetables than lying in the sun.” [3]

There is a direct relationship between skin appearance and health – if your skin does not have an orange tinge, then you are not on a healthy diet. You can even quantify your skin carotenoid levels, which reflect dietary carotenoid intake, using a specialized scanner. [4, 5] I use one of these scanners in my medical practice to confirm that phytochemicals have accumulated in the skin of patients, affording them protection against cancer and other chronic diseases. Plus these phytonutrients in the skin offer protection from sun damage, aging of the skin and skin cancer from sun exposure. [6]

So eating carotenoid-rich food is not only a path to excellent health – it’s also a way to look good!


1. Carotenoids Are Cornerstone of Bird's Vitality. ScienceDaily, 2009.
2. Stephen, I.D., Coetzee, V., Perrett, D.I., Carotenoid and melanin pigment coloration affect perceived human health. Evolution and Human Behavior, 2010.
3. Looking good on greens. Eurekalert!, 2011.
4. Ermakov, I.V. and W. Gellermann, Validation model for Raman based skin carotenoid detection. Arch Biochem Biophys, 2010. 504(1): p. 40-9.
5. Ermakov, I.V., et al., Resonance Raman detection of carotenoid antioxidants in living human tissue. J Biomed Opt, 2005. 10(6): p. 064028.
6. Nichols, J.A. and S.K. Katiyar, Skin photoprotection by natural polyphenols: anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and DNA repair mechanisms. Arch Dermatol Res, 2010. 302(2): p. 71-83.


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Comments (12) Read through and enter the discussion with the form at the end
Jen - February 2, 2011 12:01 PM

"if your skin does not have an orange tinge, then you are not on a healthy diet." ?

Please! This comment makes me feel bad about my skin colour: I go by your diet, and, I am pretty hardcore on it too, for about 1 1/2 year, yet I am white as a ghost...especially in the winter. I come from Normand descent, with a slight red head mix...

What should I do? Eat only carrots, drop all the other veggies and fruits so I can look orange?

Please help if this is a real concern, or give a more detailed explanation.

thank you.

Kimberly - February 2, 2011 12:18 PM

Cool, I have very orange skin. :)

Eileen - February 2, 2011 12:32 PM

Everyone I come across, either on TV, the Internet, or in person, who eats a Vegan diet is always gorgeous! Here it is the middle of winter and I constantly asked how ofter I "tan". I haven't ever used a tanning booth or tanning lotion and since the weather started getting bad, I have barely spent enough time outside to constitute a sun tan.

The saying "You are what you eat" is true true true. I notice that the meat eating friends I have who rarely eat fresh whole fruits and veggies, look washed out, swollen, and worn down. It is obvious their circulation is poor because their skin is not vibrant and dewy like the people I know who eat a plant based diet.

The thing that frustrates me is why when the evidence is so obvious, why people still refuse to acknowledge that diet plays a huge role in overall health?

Marie Krieger - February 2, 2011 2:47 PM

Thanks for this fascinating post on "the carotenoid glow".
It is a wonderful reminder that health and beauty are solidly linked.
It is heartening to learn that we are still hard wired for optimal genetic pairing based on the appearance of genuine good health despite our modern penchant for unnatural lifestyle and food choices.
People spend inordinate amounts of money on skincare, when the real organ that determines beautiful skin is the liver.
Young people are bombarded by media that idealize artificial living and they are offered little to no evidence of what constitutes genuine beauty. So this is an excellent reminder of the real basis for attractiveness rooted in sound nutritional science. One question though, especially for people who juice. Is there a guideline for consumption of carotenoid rich foods so that the carotenoid glow does not become a carotenoid "glare"? Thanks

Abe - February 3, 2011 11:11 AM

Can you explain to me how they did this study? Did they actually take people and have them eat enough carotenoids to color their skin, and then lose that color, and then go get a suntan? Or did they take a photo, manipulate it to different colors, and ask people about the results? From what I can see of the methods, which isn't much since they're not freely available, they used the latter technique. Is that really going to give an honest and straightforward result, or it it going to give the result that those researchers are looking for?

steve - February 7, 2011 11:34 PM

Dr Fuhrman, your blog post seems to be directed to those of us with white skin, but what about other skin colors, like skin that's already yellow or brown? Please answer, as I'm sure I'm not the only person wondering.

Deana Ferreri, Ph.D. - February 8, 2011 2:19 PM

The researchers noted that "yellowness" from carotenoids is also perceptible in naturally brown skin.

Sara - February 20, 2011 11:11 PM

I too was wondering about whether this study was racially-specific, so that's good to hear that it wasn't.

As someone who sunless tans in the summertime, I'm glad to hear that my eating will help me lay off some of the tanner. I was actually worried last year, because I was turning orangey from the beta carotene, if I would look like a pumpkin. Good to know that people think it's pretty!

I think I love this article!

Tina - February 24, 2011 3:25 PM

I read about this study on I started a diet about a year ago to eat less meat and eat more vegetables. I eat veggies almost every day now and my face looks tan. The rest of my skin has a slight yellow undertone. Now I know why.

briany - February 27, 2011 1:15 AM

I'm a bit confused because people tend to associate yellow skin with jaundice and this study showed that carotenoids make skin look healthier.

Maybe eat fats with your vegetables. We need fats to absorb fat soluble vitamins and carotenoids.

I am a Chinese and my skin has yellowish glow because I juice my greens. I looked at the hands of other Chinese and their skin looked whiter.

Eric - December 8, 2011 4:56 AM

So what is carotenosis then? Is it the natural condition we should all have? I have dramatically increased my vegetable consumption over the past 4 months and my skin has turned yellow. My eyes aren't yellow so I'm assuming things are still OK. My doctor said I have carotenosis caused by "too many" cartenoids. Can we have too much?

gale - December 19, 2012 11:38 AM

Eating Kale everyday in a shake. Is Kale okay to have this way every day? I heard spinach is not good to have every day in a shake. Can you clarify for me. A large salad with tomatoes, red onions, mushrooms, cukes, and celery for lunch. With ground pumpkin and sunflower seeds. Then soup and salad for supper is my usual routine. I feel so much better when I keep this routine. I do have lean ground turkey,chicken and fish, either in soups or side every week. I feel happier and satiated when eat a little meat once in a while. :)

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