Have you ever been in a foreign country when disaster suddenly strikes? By disaster, I don’t mean catastrophic injury or tragic accident – but completely avoidable inconvenience that just makes you slightly uncomfortable. I’m talking mosquito bites, a sunburn, nausea, or just being plain cold. Everywhere in the world has a ‘local remedy’ which promises to cure these pains in the traditions of their ancestors. Peruvians swear by Coca Leaves to fight altitude sickness, and science (and millions of travelers) agree. My grandmother was a firm believer in ‘draw an X over your mosquito bite and it will stop itching.’ Which, apparently may temporarily work, but is far from the best method available to us. And, as I recently learned, the Chileans have a ‘local secret’ for curing a sunburn.
I had just crossed from Peru into Chile, Arica to be exact, and my skin was not ready for the amount of sun I was about to expose it to. After exactly one beach day (in which I did apply a modest amount of sunscreen) my skin was burnt. And by burnt, I mean the kind of burnt where strangers stop you to comment on how red you are. I was staying at surf lodge pretty far from the town, so obviously no Aloe Vera was available. I asked around the hostel and no one had any creams, but the woman who runs the hostel said “just use tomatoes.”
“What?” I asked confused at how exactly I should be using tomatoes to cure a sunburn.
She explained that her family has always soothed skin rashes, including sun burns, by cutting a tomatoes in half and rubbing it on the skin, letting it soak in, then washing it off. The vitamins in the tomato, she claimed, would help soothe the skin just like Aloe Vera does. A Chilean couple at the hostel confirmed that their grandparents also said to do this, but they themselves had never done it.
As I had no other options, but I did have a market with fresh produce nearby, I headed over. Once at the market I grabbed their freshest tomatoes and asked the man working there if he had ever heard of tomatoes being used for a sunburn. He said absolutely! And to just pick the ripest ones and squeeze the juice on the burn. As someone who is a huge fan of natural remedies, and relatively well traveled, I was shocked I had never heard of this method before.
I took my 3 ripe tomatoes, cut them in half, and lathered myself in tomatoes juice. Much to the delight of everyone watching. I’m not here to tell you whether or not this reduced the burn, I am not a scientist, but it definitely didn’t make it worse! And it was a cooling sensation. The biggest downside to this natural remedies is flies are also a big fan of tomatoes juice. So for the next 20 minutes as the juice hardened and became a sticky coat, I was ground zero for all flies living in or around Arica.
I did some research and the results are split. There seems to be some science behind it. The Beekman 1802 blog explains the befits of Tomatoes this way:
Why does this work for sunburns? It’s the one-two punch of lycopene and lactic acid. Lycopene from the tomato juice is an important nutrient that helps your skin protect itself from ultraviolet rays and helps alleviate redness.Beekman 1802
But the Daily Telegraph had this to say in an article listing Tomatoes as one of the 5 biggest sunburn remedy myths:
Ever heard the one about squeezing the juice from a tomato on your skin or applying tomato slices? Apparently the juice is supposed to relieve any redness… Er, sorry peeps, but don’t try this at home! “Tomatoes would potentially sting the skin because they’re quite acidic,” says Dr Cook. She advises to take your hand out of the fruit basket and pop an anti-inflammatory (like Nurofen) instead.Daily Telegraph
All I can tell you is this, if you are far from a pharmacy and there is no Aloe Vera (or Nurofen for that matter) you could do a lot worse than some tomato juice on your skin. Even with the addition of flies. And if it was good enough for that Chilean woman’s grandma, it is good enough for me!