Yes, "Sunscreen Pills" Really Are a Terrible Idea
If you think taking a pill instead of slathering your body with sunscreen sounds too good to be true, you're absolutely right.
As a dermatologist, my job is to keep the skin healthy. Regardless of skin type, age, or lifestyle, there is one parting line that remains the same: Wear. Sunscreen.
The American Academy of Dermatology recommends making a broad-spectrum SPF of 30 or higher part of your daily (as in 365, rain or shine) routine. That, in addition to reapplying said sunscreen every two hours, seeking shade between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., wearing a broad-brimmed hat, sun-protective clothing, and sunglasses, all make up the ideal set of protective guidelines against cancer and wrinkle-causing ultraviolet (UV) light. That's a lot, I know.
Wouldn't it be so much easier to just take a pill that allowed for guiltless romps in the sun? Umm, yeah! Sadly though, these new "sunscreen pills," which promise to protect your skin from the sun sans sunscreen, are a sham. They live quite securely in that "too good to be true" category-along with miracle weight-loss supplements and cellulite creams. (Related: Does Natural Sunscreen Hold Up Against Regular Sunscreen?)
In fact, last month, the FDA issued a warning that these pills-from brands including Sunsafe Rx, Advanced Skin Brightening Formula, Solaricare, and Sunergetic-were "misleading consumers and putting people at risk" with their unproven claims. Thankfully, Walmart has already pulled the harmful products from their shelves.
Recently, New York Senator Chuck Schumer followed up by asking that more online and retail stores follow suit. "Sunscreen pills are a fraud ... right now thousands and thousands of Americans are taking these pills and not putting on sunscreen. And they are endangering themselves," Schumer said in a press conference last weekend.
But while every dermatologist in the world would agree that NO pill would ever take the place of good old sunscreen, that doesn't mean there's nothing you can do to supplement your SPF. (The key word being "supplement.")
There are indeed, antioxidant dietary supplements that can help in the fight against sun-related damage and aging. Heliocare is one of them, and Anthony Rossi, M.D., a skin cancer surgeon, and assistant attending of dermatology at Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital recommends to his patients.
Although it may seem to be similar to the bogus brands above, Heliocare is a natural product derived from fern extract, which has actually been recommended by dermatologists for 20-plus years-it's not marketed as a replacement for, but rather as a supplement to, routine sun-protective measures. Dr. Rossi says he tells his patients to use Heliocare daily if possible, and certainly in periods with prolonged UV exposure. (Related: Sunscreens for Working Out That Don't Suck)
Oral antioxidants can also help with skin damage resulting from smog, pollution, infrared rays, and other forms of light (like the bulbs in your house and your iPad screen-seriously!) by targeting free radicals, the chemical culprits behind aging. There is also anecdotal evidence that an oral antioxidant like Heliocare can improve inflammatory skin conditions such as melasma.
So, what's in my weekend bag for the upcoming holiday weekend? Sunglasses (the bigger the better both for fashion and function), a broad-spectrum SPF of 30 or higher (with an SPF powder to make re-application a breeze), a cute hat for extra protection. Oh, and a bottle of my favorite rosé that I'll be buying with all that money I saved from not wasting it on "sunscreen pills."