Proper sun protection is the Golden Rule of skincare. Without it, all of your hard work and consistency with your beauty routine are mostly wasted.
Even if you don’t get sunburnt, unprotected exposure to UV rays can lead to the type of damage that you can’t see until it’s too late. This includes skin cancer, but I’m also talking about premature aging (think wrinkles and liver spots), rough or leathery skin texture, and cell damage, among other things.
This (plus the misery of sunburns) is why I’m always so adamant about my friends and family doing everything they can to protect themselves. I want everyone I love to be able to live a long and healthy life, and sun protection is an important part of that.
I’m all for using whatever methods of sun protection work for you. Sunscreen, UV umbrellas, UPF clothing, hats, shade, antioxidants—any and all of these things are great for avoiding sun damage. However, there’s one method that I’ve been seeing in beauty magazines and social media posts lately, and I don’t feel good about it.
Yes, I’m talking about sunscreen supplements.
I’m all for using whatever methods of sun protection work for you. However, there’s one method that I’ve been seeing in social media posts lately, and I don’t feel good about it.
What Are Sunscreen Supplements?
Brands like Heliocare, Sunsafe Rx, Solaricare, and Sunergetic are marketed as “suncare supplements” or “sun pills.” Before 2018, they leaned heavily on branding these supplements as “oral sunscreen,” and they made a lot of claims about being able to protect your skin from sunburn and UV damage.
While companies have to be more circumspect with their claims and marketing terms now (we’ll get to that part in a minute), these brands and other “sunscreen supplements” claim to “strengthen your body’s natural defenses” and “preserve your DNA,” in addition to improving your overall skin health.
Most of these supplements contain antioxidants, chlorophyll, zinc, herbal extracts, and other vitamins and minerals that can support your health overall. The main ingredient in these pills that is supposedly responsible for the sun protection factor is called Polypodium leucotomos extract, and that’s what we’re going to focus on next.
Polypodium Leucotomos: The So-called Sunscreen Plant
One thing that all of these dietary supplements that tout sun protection have in common is the presence of Polypodium leucotomos extract. This is a leafy fern that is most commonly found in South America, and it seems that locals have been using it for skin conditions for a long time. Locals call it “calaguala,” so you may see it referred to by that name sometimes.
In general, the extract from this plant is supposed to have significant anti-inflammatory properties thanks to its high antioxidant content. There is some evidence that it can help to support healthier skin for people who suffer from psoriasis, eczema, and rashes caused by exposure to sunlight.
The P. leucotomos fern contains several important compounds that all have proven antioxidant effects. Two in particular—ferulic acid and caffeic acid—have shown good results for preventing the oxidative stress that causes cell damage (which is responsible for visible signs of aging).
So, on the surface, this seems like a pretty great addition to your beauty regimen. Before you run out and buy a bottle though, let’s take a look at the research.
What the Research Says About Sunscreen Supplements
Unfortunately, there is very little research to back up the claims that these supplement companies are making, and there is even less reliable data to show that these supplements can protect you from sunburns.
The main source of info that I found about the P. leucotomos extract is this study. It contains the results of several other smaller studies and examines the data from all of them.
Researchers performed tests in a lab on hairless rats and human cells to determine whether this plant could protect against sunburns and the rashes and hives that come with sun allergies. The tests did show a measurably lower amount of photoaging damage, sunburn inflammation, and skin tumor development with the P. leucotomos treatments. In the clinical trials, there were also similar positive results: fewer sunburn cells and lowered likelihood of developing sun rashes.
However, it’s important to remember a couple of things.
First, while tests performed in a lab are important and useful, they can’t completely replace tests on human subjects in real-life situations. Yes, there were a few trials performed on healthy human volunteers, but they were very small and short.
Second, even though there were positive results in all of the tests from that study, they still don’t quite match up with a lot of the marketing claims and ad copy that go along with these sunscreen pills you can find on the shelves.
Spilling Some Supplement Tea
Remember how I said that these sunscreen pill brands really played up their “sunscreen from the inside out” claims before 2018?
That’s because in May 2018, the FDA issued a warning statement to these companies for making unfounded claims and potentially endangering consumers with their marketing jargon. The FDA came down pretty hard on these companies and made them change their labels and marketing tactics to be more clear about what these supplements can and cannot do.
The FDA made these companies change their labels and marketing tactics to be more clear about what these supplements can and cannot do.
This is where things get tricky. Of course, these supplement companies scrambled to make sure that they couldn’t be penalized for violating federal laws, but they still wanted their products to be appealing.
So now, they still make pretty sweeping claims about how great and helpful their products are, but many of them lean a little harder on the anti-aging aspects and slide sneaky phrases in about “making the skin more resilient,” “protecting the skin from sun exposure,” or “providing continuous, full-body coverage” (what does that even mean?).
When you combine these phrases with brand names that imply sun protection, it paints a pretty clear picture to the consumer that this is intended to be used as an oral sunscreen. Sneaky, tricky, shady marketing, in my opinion.
The Final Verdict: Yea or Nay to Sunscreen Supplements?
I’ll admit that I found the research on P. leucotomos very interesting, especially for people with eczema, psoriasis, and sun allergies. It seems like it could offer some genuine relief when used in conjunction with other treatments (and doctor approval, of course!).
As far as dropping $30 to $80 on a bottle of sunscreen pills goes, I’m less enthused. If you’re looking for more sun protection, I think your money is better spent on quality UPF clothing, cosmetically elegant sunscreen formulas, and some UV-blocking window tint.
However! I think it’s pretty safe to say that Polypodium leucotomos is a powerful antioxidant, and most of these supplements do contain other beneficial vitamins, minerals, and herbal extracts. So, if you have the beauty budget to add this kind of oral antioxidant to your routine, I don’t think there’s any harm in doing so.
Sunscreen pills can’t replace topical sunscreen application or good sun safety practices. It’s possible that they can provide noticeable antioxidant benefits, and they could be a useful treatment option for people with eczema or sun allergies, but you shouldn’t expect them to do any heavy lifting.
The bottom line: Don’t fall for the marketing hype and the allure of an easy answer to sun protection.