Sunscreen pills are one of the newest trends in sun protection ― they’re oral supplements that claim to protect the skin from the sun’s harmful rays ― but you could be putting yourself at an increased risk of sunburn or skin cancer if you’re misusing them.
In May, the Food and Drug Administration released a statement warning about the risks of using oral supplements as a sole form of sun protection (keywords: sole form). The federal agency accused four brands ― Advanced Skin Brightening Formula, Sunsafe Rx, Solaricare and Sunergetic ― of misleading advertising. These brands claim their products can protect people from the sun and its harmful effects, which isn’t necessarily true.
Two experts are helping us clear up the issue: Dr. Rachel Nazarian of Schweiger Dermatology Group in Manhattan and Dr. Jeanine Downie, a board-certified dermatologist and contributing medical expert to Zwivel.com, talked to HuffPost about whether sun protection supplements work, how they should be used and whether we need them.
Do these supplements actually provide any protection from the sun?
The answer is more complex than a simple yes or no.
As Downie told HuffPost, there are a number of pills marketed as sunscreen pills that really don’t protect people from the sun.
“What I tell my patients is there’s nothing like topical sunblock,” she said. “With these pills, people feel like they can pop a pill, not put on sunblock at all, and that’s completely dangerous and completely false [especially] with incidents of skin cancer rising the way it has been.”
What these sun protection supplements do on a cellular level, Nazarian explained to HuffPost, is “curb some of the inflammation and some of the damage that was done to cells.”
But, she stressed, “they’re not sunscreen. It’s not like they’re blocking the radiation or offering a shield against ultraviolet radiation.”
There is one supplement, Heliocare, that Downie and Nazarian said they’ve recommended to their patients, especially those who are extremely fair or very photosensitive. Heliocare’s main active ingredient is Polypodium leucotomos extract, which comes from a fern native to Central and South America. According to one study from The Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology, Polypodium leucotomos, when taken orally for a regular period of time, proved to be an “effective means for reducing the damaging effects of ultraviolet radiation.”
Still, supplements should NOT replace sunscreen.
Instead, Downie and Nazarian said they have recommended that their patients use Heliocare in addition to their regular sunscreen to add protection. In simple terms, Heliocare can slightly increase your threshold for sunburns and your sensitivity to radiation, Nazarian said, but it is not a sunblock.
“There’s nothing better than putting sunblock on your actual face, neck, ears, backs of hands every morning, and then reapplying it multiple times a day,” said Downie, whose patients call her the sunblock queen, the sunblock police and the sunblock reckoner.
“As for your body parts, if you’re not going to be just quickly driving to work, and you’re outside in the sun all day ― carrying the mail, cutting the lawn, if you’re a construction worker, if you’re a crossing guard ― any of those things where you’re outside all day, you need it on your body as well. That is topical sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or more.”
Downie also stressed that sunblock should be worn in any weather, as up to 80 percent of the sun’s rays can penetrate through the clouds, even on gray and gloomy days.
“All that nonsense about ‘Oh, it’s not sunny, I don’t have to wear sunblock’ is definitely that ― nonsense,” she said. “Rain or shine, January through December, I don’t care what time of year it is, I want people to wear sunblock.”
So, if sunblock is the most important, do we really need supplements, too?
Downie said that if someone is diligent about consistently applying and re-applying their sunscreen (SPF 30 or higher) every day in sufficient amounts, it’s not totally necessary to add a supplement like Heliocare to their routine.
But, as Nazarian pointed out, we’re not perfect humans who apply (and reapply) the perfect amount of sunscreen every single day. In her opinion, then, adding a supplement can be beneficial when used in addition to a topical sunscreen.
“In order to get the SPF they advertise on the bottle, it really needs to be applied in a nice, healthy amount and then it needs to be reapplied throughout the day,” she said. “You and I both know that, at least with half the population, if they’re wearing makeup, they’re not going to be applying more sunscreen on top of their makeup during the day.”
Sunscreen is the best thing out there for sun protection, Nazarian said, but it’s still flawed, and “it’s still not good enough.”
“I would never tell people to turn away additional tools they could use to prevent skin cancer and even sun aging,” Nazarian added.
So what exactly about these pills should concern us?
It’s not an ingredient in the pills, rather it’s the marketing.
The FDA stated that the companies named above were “putting people’s health at risk by giving consumers a false sense of security that a dietary supplement could prevent sunburn, reduce early skin aging caused by the sun, or protect from the risks of skin cancer.”
If people believe the pills will protect them from the sun, they may be less inclined to apply a topical sunscreen as well. And if they aren’t wearing sunscreen while exposed to the sun’s rays, they’re not truly protected from the sun.
As the FDA aptly stated, “There’s no pill or capsule that can replace your sunscreen.”