Could Sunscreen Pills Be The New Form Of Sun Protection?

Sunscreen Pills: Myth or Beauty Breakthrough?

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Maybe you’ve seen them: oral sunscreen pills formulated with ingredients that claim to prevent photoaging and sun damage from the inside. Some contain vitamins, prebiotics, and cysteine which—when combined with topical sun protection—are said to help block UV rays.

Sunscreen in pill form? Sounds tempting—especially if you’re the type who forgets to reapply their topical sunscreen every few hours. But what are these so-called sunscreen pills and do they really work? Here, a deep dive into the truth about sunscreen pills.

Why is sun protection important?

As anyone with a vitamin D deficiency knows, it’s important to receive the sun’s natural light. However, you don’t need a ton of it—and it’s definitely not a good idea to go without sun protection most of the time, especially if you plan to be outside during peak mid-day hours.

“Sun exposure in limited amounts, such as 10 to 15 minutes per week on exposed skin (face, neck, hands) provides sufficient vitamin D from the sun for most patients,” explains Dr. Dawn Davis, a dermatologist at Mayo Clinic, who emphasizes the importance of protecting your skin from too much sun. “Sun protection is important to reduce the risk of skin cancer and also to reduce photoaging, which is sun-related skin damage such as wrinkles and spots,” she explains. To that end, she says that dietary sources like dairy products and fortified cereals are great ways to amp up your vitamin D intake without fear of sun damage.

Do oral sunscreen pills work?

We all know sun protection is important—and there are more options than you probably realized: “There are two types of sunscreens: chemical blockers that absorb UV light from the sun and physical blockers that reflect UV light from the sun,” Davis explains.

“The main advantage of orally-administered chemophotoprotectors, compared to topical sunscreens or even topical chemophotoprotectors, is that they have a systemic effect which can provide uniform protection throughout the skin,” explains Dr. Erika Aguilar of the clinic Belle & Health in Mexico City. She points out that there have been recent studies showing the effects of some naturally-derived chemophotoprotectors: “Polypodium leucotomos, an extract from the leaves of camellia sinensis, offers a relevant chemo-photoprotective profile.”

However, it’s very important to note that most official medical bodies—including the FDA—recommend proceeding with caution when using oral sunscreen pills. “We’ve found products purporting to provide protection from the sun that aren’t delivering the advertised benefits. Instead they’re misleading consumers, and putting people at risk,” they said in a 2018 statement that specifically called out the brands Advanced Skin Brightening FormulaSunsafe RxSolaricare and Sunergetic. “There’s no pill or capsule that can replace your sunscreen.”

It’s also good to remember that the claims made on the bottles of over-the-counter dietary supplements (like sunscreen pills) are not generally regulated by the FDA, so there’s no way to know for sure if a sunscreen pill will do what it says it will. However, topical sunscreen in the US is regulated by the FDA, so it’s generally safe to assume that a lotion or serum will deliver on its promise of sun protection. “Legitimate sunscreens are made in a wide range of sun protection factor values, also known as SPF values, and are over-the-counter drugs that come in many forms. These include lotions, creams, sticks, and spray. All of these formulations are applied topically over the skin and must pass certain tests before they’re sold,” the FDA says. “All sunscreens are tested to measure the amount of UV radiation exposure it takes to cause sunburn when using a sunscreen compared to how much UV exposure it takes to cause a sunburn when not using a sunscreen. Over the years, the FDA has updated the labeling requirements placed on sunscreens marketed without approved applications to reflect the latest science on UV exposure. And we’re continuing to work to ensure that sunscreen active ingredients and the FDA’s regulations reflect the most advanced science on determining safety and effectiveness.”

Are oral sunscreen capsules safe?

There’s no real evidence showing that sunscreen pills aren’t safe—it’s just that they haven’t been proven to provide the sun protection they claim. And, they might be useful for those who want to be extra protected. “Oral sunscreen can be recommended for all skin phototypes, especially patients with very fair skin, and patients with a family history of skin cancer,” says Aguilar Namihira. “Unlike topical sunscreens, these products have the potential to be distributed homogeneously throughout the body through the bloodstream.”

However, one should never rely on oral sunscreen pills alone; at best, they are meant to complement the SPF in topical sunscreen creams and serums—never replace it.

“There are several over-the-counter oral supplements and a couple of prescription medications that can increase tolerance to UV light,” says Davis. “However, regulation of over-the-counter medications is not as strict as it is for prescription formulations.” She also points out that ingredients that increase UV tolerance can cause some side effects, “like an upset stomach and diarrhea.”

Should I use oral sunscreen pills?

If you don’t mind risking an upset stomach or diarrhea and don’t care that the claims may be false, you can use oral sunscreen pills—but keep in mind that there isn’t a ton of research proving their efficacy.

You’re probably better off sticking to tried-and-true physical protectants for now. Davis recommends taking a multi-tiered approach to sun protection: “use sunscreen with an SPF of 50 or higher, wear sunglasses with built-in UV protection, and hats and protective clothing with SPF instead of oral treatment,” she says.

And don’t assume that applying sunscreen alone will provide adequate protection: “Many studies have demonstrated that individuals who use sunscreen tend to stay out in the sun for a longer period of time, and thus may actually increase their risk of skin cancer,” a recent Harvard Health article notes.

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