With Memorial Day weekend approaching and warm beach days ahead, it’s time to stock up on sunscreen again. And when you hit those shelves this season, there’s a good chance you’ll see what is now an increasingly common new genre of summer safety: sun protection pills.Typically made of a blend of powerful antioxidants, these supplements purport to reduce inflammation and free radical damage caused by ultraviolet (UV) sunrays. As a result, they claim, you’re less apt to burn and your skin will have a strengthened resistance to the sun.
Some dermatologists find the science behind these pills pretty convincing.“You can think of it as ingesting a Mediterranean-type diet,” says Doris Day, M.D., clinical associate professor of dermatology at New York University Langone Medical Center. “We see lower skin cancer rates in people who eat diets high in antioxidants, since it’s believed they help the body fight off aggressors to stay healthy and young.”Antioxidants scavenge free radicals, which disrupt normal cell functions and cause sun damage that can ultimately lead to aging and skin cancer, explains San Antonio, Texas, dermatologist Vivian Bucay.
Dr. Bucay consults for the sun supplement brand Heliocare ($30), which features the antioxidant known as Polypodium leucotomos extract (PLE).“In contrast to other oral antioxidants, such as vitamin C or vitamin E, skin is the target organ of the antioxidant PLE, so daily consumption will boost the skin’s resistance to UV rays,” says Bucay. A survivor of stage four melanoma, Bucay now takes a Heliocare capsule every morning and follows up with a second a couple of hours later if she plans to be out in the sun.
Another PLE supplement, Sunergetic ($40), was created by an NYU student after his own brush with cancer. A tennis player who spent a lot of time in the sun while growing up, the now 22-year-old James Scarmozzino was diagnosed with pre-cancerous cells on his hand at the age of just 15. After reading studies on the emerging science of sun supplements, he created the ingestible as a strategy to increase resistance to UV rays.
“Sunergetic is designed to complement sunscreens. Environmental factors like perspiration and swimming may reduce the effectiveness of your sunscreen, but a supplement can’t be removed and provides important internal nutrients and antioxidant protection for your skin,” says Scarmozzino. In addition to PLE, the blend contains ginseng, green tea, camu camu and vitamin B, and also claims to increase energy that is often depleted when you feel lazy on those hot sunny days.
Experts however caution that consumers should understand that the protection offered by sun supplements is very limited. “While I believe they are worthwhile and add value in terms of sun protection, I also worry that people will get a false sense of safety, and then skip out on properly applying or reapplying their sunscreen,” says Day, adding that these types of pills likely only provide coverage equivalent to about an SPF 3 or even less.
Yet other experts are still on the fence about the effectiveness of the supplements, and this is where it gets a bit complicated.“Sunburn signals skin damage from UV, so if a supplement blocks the sunburn response, are we stopping the actual damage, or merely stopping the red flag signal that tells us that we’re sustaining major damage?” asks Washington, D.C., dermatologist Noëlle S. Sherber.
So far, none of the claims on sun supplements have been cleared by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), though Heliocare does cite clinical study evidence. Since these blends are considered herbal supplements and not drugs, approval isn’t needed from the FDA to sell them on shelves.
A 2007 European study actually showed that women taking high-dose antioxidant supplements had higher rates of skin cancer than those who did not, although Sherber stresses that the results bear further investigation. The research was built on the principles established by a prior study indicating that smokers taking beta-carotene had a higher incidence of lung cancer.
“The theory is that an excessive intake of antioxidants may actually impair your body’s ability to scavenge damaged cells. Too much of a good thing may—counter to the Mae West philosophy—indeed be too much,” says Sherber.However, the results of this study should be put into the perspective of the larger body of information we have on the topic so far, opines Joshua Zeichner, M.D., director of cosmetic and clinical research at Mount Sinai Medical Center’s department of dermatology.
“A single study makes us think, but is not conclusive,” says Dr. Zeichner. “The overwhelming majority of data on antioxidants support their protective effects on the body in terms of preventing the development of skin cancer and slowing skin aging.”
So are sun supplements worth your time and money? Whether experts agree if there’s enough data yet to warrant an endorsement is still up for debate, but there is some medium ground here.
“Sun supplements should never substitute sunscreen and sun protective behavior, but I think it certainly doesn’t hurt to add to your regimen, especially if you’re very fair and want added protection,” says Zeichner.In other words, if you’re the type to tote sunscreen and wide-brimmed hats on the regular, adding these pills may pump up your arsenal. But if you tend to get lazy with sunscreen or just intermittently practice sun safe habits, you may actually do more damage than good by overestimating just how much protection popping a pill may get you.Either way, the bottom line is still the same and inescapable: Listen to Mom and wear your sunscreen every day.