As the summer heats up and consumers seek options for sun protection, a federal health commissioner and Houston physicians are warning against relying on sunscreen pills alone.
The supplements aren’t enough, by themselves, to avoid the harmful effects of ultraviolet—better known as UV—radiation exposure.
“There is no pill or capsule that can replace sunscreen combined with sun-protective behaviors,” said Shannan McCann, M.D., a pediatric dermatologist at Texas Children’s Hospital. “Sunscreen pills can be very confusing for a typical consumer because we don’t have a lot of research on them yet.”
Traditional sunscreen works as a physical shield to harmful UV rays, but even applying adequate amounts on the skin still allows some damage to the body.
Sunscreen pills act in a completely different way. The most common ingredient, Polypodium Leucotomus, doesn’t prevent UV rays from entering the body, but decreases the damage they cause.
In May, four sunscreen pill manufacturers were cited by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for promoting products as options for complete protection from the sun.
The FDA does not typically regulate dietary supplements, but sunscreen and products claiming to offer the benefits of sunscreen are different. In a May 2018 statement, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, M.D. warned consumers to not be misguided.
“These companies—marketing products called Advanced Skin Brightening Formula, Sunsafe Rx, Solaricare and Sunergetic—are 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,” Gottlieb said in the announcement. “These companies were instructed to correct all violations associated with their products and were advised to review product websites and product labeling to ensure that the claims they are making don’t violate federal law.”
Two months after the warning was announced, some companies still have formulations for sale that claim to potentially strengthen immune response, enhance UV protection and gradually build a UV tolerance.
Spreading the facts about sunscreen pills responds to an urgent public health issue. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, skin cancer is the most common type of cancer. Current estimates show that one in five Americans is at risk of developing skin cancer in their lifetimes. Most skin cancer—more than 90 percent—is from damage caused by UV exposure, the CDC reports. UV light—natural or artificial—can add up over a person’s lifetime and can lead to skin cancer, McCann noted.
Susan Y. Chon, M.D., associate professor in the department of dermatology at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, said that sunscreen pill manufacturers overstate the effectiveness of their products.
“These companies report that these pills can do a lot of things, but many of the studies have been done in the lab,” Chon explained. “As far as how that helps in real life or what that does in the body—I don’t think it’s very clear.”
She also points out that many containers say that pills should be used with sunscreen.
“They are definitely not a replacement,” Chon said. “People just misread the bottle and think it will protect them from the sun and that is not what they do at all. They do not erase the damage caused by UV exposure. I have had patients ask me about these pills in clinic and I have to advise and correct them on the misconception. These companies should be more forthcoming and be more specific from the very beginning about what the pill does.”
Sunscreen pills may contain Polypodium Leucotomos leaf extract, green tea extract, Lutein, Zeaxanthin, Vitamin C, Vitamin E and other ingredients, depending on the manufacturer.
“There is scientific evidence that shows that the South American plant, Polypodium Leucotomos, can help to enhance antioxidant properties that inhibit reactive oxygen species that are induced by UV radiation,” McCann said. “Polypodium Leucotomos is not super effective, but it may provide some benefit when used with the sunscreen, a hat and protective clothing. … They may help to just decrease UV-induced damage and anti-inflammatory effect.”
To encourage more advancement in sun protection, the federal Sunscreen Innovation Act was enacted in 2014. The law aims to motivate players in the over-the-counter sunscreen industry to develop new technologies. Despite innovation overseas, no new active ingredients for sunscreen products have gained FDA approval in the last decade. Last year, agency officials reviewed applications for new active ingredients and determined that more information was needed to deem those components safe and effective.
In the meantime, consumers are strongly urged to take time-tested precautions.
“There are so many things we recommend you do to protect yourself and decrease your risk: wearing protective clothing, finding shade, applying the adequate amount of sunscreen and reapplying sunscreen every two hours,” McCann said.
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