Do Sunscreen Pills Really Work?

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Photo courtesy InkyCircus.com

Just in time for Spring, I ran across an old Elle magazine article about sunscreen pills, which piqued my curiosity. According to the article, sunscreen supplements have been popular for the past 30 years in France and other Western European countries. How effective are sunscreen pills? Can you take one and skip the topical application? Read on to find out…

Product #1: Heliocare

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One of the most popular sunscreen pills is Heliocare ($54.00 for 60, Amazon.com), which contains Polypodium leucotomos extract derived from a tropical, fern-like plant.

Clinical studies on Heliocare demonstrate that Polypodium leucotomos extract protects against UV damage to the skin, decreases UVA-induced damage, prevents acute sunburn, and prevents Langerhans cell depletion upon UV exposure. One critique of these studies is given by Mayo Clinic dermatologist Lawrence Gibson, M.D., who says that “these trials were too small to have detected any possible side effects — meaning that the long-term safety of these extracts is still in question.”

Still, the results seem to be sound, and as Dr. Gibson allows, “this supplement is meant to be used in conjunction with — and not in place of — other sun protection measures, such as wearing sunscreen or protective clothing when outside.” If you wear sunscreen and sun-protective clothing already, I have not read any reason not to go the extra mile and take Heliocare if you can afford it.

Product #2: Zeaxanthin-containing products

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Zeaxanthin is a carotenoid like lycopene and lutein, and is found in human blood and tissues. However, unlike beta-carotene, zeaxanthin does not contribute to vitamin A supply. According to The International Journal for Vitamin and Nutrition Research, zeaxanthin is an efficient antioxidant, and thus “may contribute to the prevention of light-exposed tissue, skin and eyes, from light-induced damage.”

Zeaxanthin-containing products have been found to decrease UVB-induced hyperproliferation and acute inflammation in hairless mice, according to a study in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology. According to a 2007 double-blind, placebo-controlled human study, daily oral administration of zeaxanthin and lutein significantly decreases the number of sunburned cells after UV exposure. A third study, this in The Journal of Skin Pharmacology and Physiology, suggests that ingesting and topically applying zeaxanthin and lutein is more beneficial than oral ingestion alone. The study, conducted by Mavi Cosmetics in Italy, demonstrated that either the oral supplement (0.6 mg zeaxanthin and 10 mg lutein) or the zeaxanthin-lutein cream improved skin elasticity, hydration, and protection against sun damage. However, the combination of oral and topical formulations boosted numbers the most — skin hydration by 60 percent and protection against sunburn by 20 percent.

Xeaxanthin and lutein results differ from another carotenoid, beta-carotene, which was found in a 2003 study in Archives of Dermatology to be significantly less effective than a broad-spectrum UVA/UVB sunscreen at reducing the occurrence of solar keratoses in adults in a subtropical environment.

So why are zeaxanthin and lutein packaged together in many products sold for the eyes? Two reasons: One, zeaxanthin and lutein are responsible for the yellow color of the macula lutea, which protects against light-dependent damage. Two, epidemiological studies provide evidence that an increased consumption of lutein is associated with a lowered risk for age-related macular degeneration, a disease with increasing incidence in the elderly. As such, even though the product is packaged for the eyes, it seems to help protect against sun damage as well, although it is likely a supplementation and not a substitute for sunscreen and sun-protective clothing.

Product #3: Murad Pomphenol Supplement

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The third supplement, Murad Pomphenol Sunguard Supplement ($35.00, Amazon.com) contains pomegranate extract. According to Borba Age-Defying Skin Balance Water, the supplement boosts sun protection by 25% “from the inside out.” According to Borba Age-Defying Skin Balance Water, most topical moisturizer ingredients are only able to enrich the stratum corneum, the uppermost layer of the skin. By taking supplements, Murad says that the lower dermal layer can be fortified with beneficial vitamins and nutrients. Studies confirm that blood levels of nutrients can be enriched via nutritional supplements and food, including a 1988 study by Roidt et. al., which found that serum levels of ß-carotene andserum alpha-carotene were weakly correlated with food and supplement frequency intake of vitamin A, ß-carotene, and other carotenoids.

It has been proposed that pomegranates can protect against UV-induced damage in human keratinocytes, both UVA and UVB in two separate studies in the Journal of Photochemistry and Photobiology. Pomegranate extract may prevent against hyperpimgnetation as well: in this double-blind, placebo-controlled 2006 study in the Journal of Nutritional Science and Vitaminology, it was found that 100-200 mg/day of ellagic acid (a component of pomegranate extract) has an inhibitory effect on a slight pigmentation in the human skin caused by UV irradiation. The results of the Bioscience, Biotechnology and Biochemistry study suggest that the skin-whitening effect of PE was probably due to inhibition of the proliferation of melanocytes and melanin synthesis by tyrosinase in melanocytes.

For more on the effects of pomegranate extract on the skin, please click here.

The Overall Verdict & My Personal Opinion

Sunscreen pills are great!  Any of the above supplements has been shown to have significant prevention against UV-induced damage.  My only concern about sunscreen pills is low vitamin D production, which is common. A 2007 study from the University of Pittsburgh (my alma mater, yay) found that both black and white women in North America are “at high risk” for vitamin D insufficiencies, even when taking prenatal vitamins. According to Dr. Michael Holick, standing outside sunscreen-free between the hours of 10 A.M. and 4 P.M. for fifteen minutes a day three times a week lets the skin produce enough vitamin D for most of the year. (Expose your face, arms, hands, and back.) In addition, daily supplementation of 400 IU vitamin D with food (as it is a fat-soluble vitamin) should help. Be careful not to let total vitamin D from food and supplements exceed 50 mg or 2000 IU: although too much sun is unlikely to create an excess of vitamin D, too much vitamin D via food and supplement can lead to toxicity. Excessive vitamin D levels have been associated with nausea, vomiting, poor appetite, constipation, weakness, weight loss, and calcinosis, the deposition of calcium and phosphate in the body’s soft tissues such as the kidney.  However, if you eat healthfully and reasonably, and take a 400 IU vitamin D supplement, you should be fine.  Consult your physician if you have concerns.

Overall, I like to look at sunscreen pills as vitamins for skin care lovers: if you invest time and money into the best skin care products, sunscreen, and sun-protective clothing, why not go the extra mile for sunscreen pills if you can afford it and a 400 IU vitamin D supplement? :-) Let me know your thoughts!

by Nicki Zevola

6 thoughts on “Do Sunscreen Pills Really Work?

  1. Left Brain says:

    I’m skeptical of sunscreen pills. It’s possible that they show some positive effects, but the supplement business is not regulated and you have no way of knowing what is really in the pills. One day it could have the active ingredient and the next it could have something else in it. There is no governmental scrutiny. For this reason, we recommend staying away from all supplements.

  2. tal says:

    Thanks for the interesting article. My current regime consists of taking 2 grams of vitamin C before sun exposure. I’ve found I can be out in the mid-day sun at latitude
    43° 40′ for 2 hours without burning. Previously, without sunscreen, I would burn in 45 minutes. I am 58 and have always had to slather myself with sunscreen. Check out the other benefits of vitamin C at http://www.doctoryourself.com/vitaminc.html. As always, proceed cautiously and remember your health & well-being are your personal responsibility.

  3. Annie says:

    I live in Texas and my skin is fair, and when I use a sunscreen i will rash from anything over an SPF of 20. I’ve heard from a few people that they have tried Heliocare and they told me that they ordered from “kiwi drug” Heliocare . Which from what I heard has the most potent pills. I wanna know if anyone has ordered form there and if these pills really work?
    Thanks for all your help

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