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Sunscreen pills seem like a dream come true: After all, if 80% of the visible signs of aging stem from sun exposure, doesn’t that make a sunscreen pill the equivalent of slurping down an extension of your skin’s youth?! Plus, with all of the concern in recent times regarding excessive exposure to chemicals in personal care and cosmetic products, using sunscreen pills could theoretically reduce the amount of sunscreen you need.
However, because sunscreen pills aren’t all that prevalent, there have been no independent, peer-reviewed, published studies to date on these supplements yet. The FDA doesn’t have to review dietary supplements before they hit the market, and only takes action if the supplements are a danger to consumers. This means the individual companies are responsible for determining safety and for deciding whether there is adequate evidence to back their ingredients and subsequent marketing (FDA).
So I did some investigating of my own, and here is what I’ve found:
Option #1: Pomegranate — Good when ingested, OK when applied topically
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.
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
Option #2: Vitamins C and E — Great when topically applied, fair when ingested
Vitamin C and E can help to slightly boost protection in the skin. In the plant world these carotenoids, such as beta-carotene and lycopene, help to give fruits and vegetables their color. They also help give your skin a glow and boost skin’s natural protection from UV-light (PLoS One, NPR). A 2002 study explain that these work to protect skin by reducing its sensitivity to UV-irradiation, resulting in less erythema (skin redness), and helping to prevent photodamage, because they’re antioxidants and free-radical scavengers (Journal of Nutrition). This results in less UV damage and fewer signs of photoaging, which researchers found in 2010 and 2011 studies, respectively (British Journal of Dermatology, Experimental Dermatology).
[Read More: 4 Glowing Tan Alternatives for Beautiful Skin]
Option #3: Polypodium leucotomos, a fern extract — Fair when ingested
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.
Option #4: Zeaxanthin-containing products — Weak when ingested
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.
Watch that You Get Enough Vitamin D
Sunscreen pills are, overall, solid boosters to topical sunscreen, not a subs! 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.
So can a combination of antioxidants really give you as much protection as slathering on the SPF topically? Short answer: No, but it might help make up for certain vitamins and minerals you aren’t getting enough of in your diet that are a part of the body’s natural sun protection. But they aren’t for everyone. 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!
Zinc in Skin instead of on it?
The presence of zinc oxide immediately caught my eye in this supplement. Zinc oxide is one of the best physical-mineral sunscreens, but it works topically by flat-out block UV-rays from getting in, so I wondered what research had found on using zinc oxide orally. While it’s definitely promising to boost skin’s protection slightly, it’s not going to have anywhere near the same protective effects as zinc oxide-based sunscreen.
One of the ways it prevents UV damage internally is by working as an antioxidant, preventing oxidative damage in cells (Biological Trace Elements Research). A 1997 study on mice showed that zinc supplements helps to prevent DNA damage caused by UVB-irradiation (Journal of Photochemistry and Photobiology).
But like the supplement’s other ingredients, zinc isn’t one that you want to go above the daily-recommended value on. It can hinder the absorption of copper and depress the immune system if taken excessively (Food Cures).
Should you take SunAssure to help protect your skin from the sun? While it might add to skin’s natural defenses, “sunscreen” pills would be a bit of a misnomer. SunAssure doesn’t give you the same shield from UV-rays as topical sunscreen, and you should continue to wear topically applied sunscreen regularly (and reapply often), but it could help keep your body’s natural protection working optimally.
But SunAssure may not be for everyone. If you’re already taking a multivitamin or supplements that contain the same vitamins and/or minerals, then taking these might impact your health negatively due to excesses of certain vitamins or minerals. And it’s possible to get some of the effects of these supplements if you have a diet rich in foods with plenty of the right vitamins and minerals.
The bottom line is that SunAssure can help supplement what your diet might not be giving you in terms of certain vitamins and minerals. These are a part of the body’s natural sun protection. But this isn’t the same thing as sunscreen, and it shouldn’t be used as a substitute. If you do decide to use supplements to boost sun protection, remember to talk to your doctor about it. And stop using them immediately if you suffer negative effects or symptoms of a multiple vitamin overdose.