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Can a Pill Replace Your Sunscreen?

We ask leading experts if popping a pill can really help protect your skin against harmful rays. Turns out, it’s not a simple answer.

| May 12th, 2014
Can a Pill Replace Your Sunscreen?

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.

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