With an estimated 1 in 5 Americans developing skin cancer at some point in their lives, using proven sun-protection products like sunscreen can be lifesaving.
But remembering to constantly reapply sunblock can be messy and annoying. This is why the idea of sunscreen pills is appealing for some.
But experts say the promise of these pills to protect us from the sun is too good to be true.
Last month, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released a statement warning consumers of the dangers of sun-protection products making false or misleading claims about their purpose and capabilities that could put people’s lives at risk.
Among these products are so-called “dietary pills” that claim to protect users from the sun, no messy sunblock required.
Here’s what you need to know about the FDA’s sunscreen pill warning and what you can do to protect yourself against damaging ultraviolet (UV) rays.
Why these supplements are problematic
“[These products are] putting people’s health at risk by giving consumers a false sense of security that a dietary supplement could prevent sunburn, reduce early skin aging caused by the sun, or protect from the risks of skin cancer,” said the FDA in their statement.
The agency issued warnings to each of these companies, stating that all false and misleading claims need to be corrected and updated.
Dr. Barney Kenet, a New York-based dermatologist, says these false claims can lead people to experience sun damage.
“These pills claim to protect your skin and your eyes from UV damage and also to eliminate certain skin disorders that are caused by sun exposure,” he told Healthline. “The claims that they are making, based on the ingredients, are misleading, false, and could be dangerous to people who are vulnerable to sunburns and skin cancers.”
Dr. Doris Day, a dermatologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York, hasn’t heard much about these products from her patients yet. But she doesn’t seem surprised by the possibility that this is a burgeoning trend.
“There’s always a lag,” she said of issues she sees in her office.
No or some sun protection?
It’s possible that products like these could offer some added protection. But experts say they shouldn’t be used — or marketed — as a replacement for sunscreen.
Simply put, experts say it’s unfair and misleading to consumers.
“This kind of misleading information leads people to believe they are protected when they are not,” Kenet said. “People who think they are protected might not wear proper protection: sunscreen or protective clothing.”
And this is where the real risk comes in.
“You have to be careful with your claims,” Day said.
Day says that pills aren’t a safe replacement for sunscreen, and if you hate dealing with messy sunscreen application, there are other alternatives to protect yourself from the sun.
Day points out that even sunblock, which faces strict regulation by the FDA, isn’t foolproof for preventing a sunburn.
“Depending on the time of day, what your skin type is and how sensitive you are, you need to wear physical protection,” she said. “You need a hat. You need sun-protective clothing, you need sunglasses. I call it sun-smart behavior.”
Day further points out that while antioxidant supplements may help bolster sun protection, they’re no replacement for proven products.
“You’re guaranteed to burn if you don’t use sunscreen, and I would even go as far as to say you are guaranteed to burn if you take any supplement and don’t use sunscreen,” Day said.
“There’s no supplement available today that would replace the need for sunscreen. But I do believe that supplements can give you added and enhanced protection,” she said. “It’s unfortunate for [companies] to inappropriately market to consumers, because that will ultimately increase the risk of skin cancer and premature aging.”
5 tips for staying safe in the sun
Here are five tried-and-true ways to protect yourself against even the strongest rays.
1. Watch the clock. “The number one way to protect yourself is to stay out of the sun during peak sun times — 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.,” Kenet said. “This is especially true for people who are on a holiday and are out on the beach.”
2. Think about your threads. “I recommend protective clothing with a tight weave — long-sleeved T-shirts and broad-brimmed hats,” Kenet said.
3. Reapply your sunscreen. Day points out that applying even the most trusted, broad-spectrum sunscreen early in the morning won’t help you when it counts the most. “I see people burning every day who swear up and down that they use SPF and they reapplied it, [but] people aren’t reapplying like they say they are,” Day said.
If you put on sunscreen first thing in the morning, it’s critical that you reapply by 11 a.m. The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) recommends SPF 30 or higher.
4. Increase your antioxidant intake. “A high antioxidant diet, like a Mediterranean diet, that’s high in fish, olive oil, almonds, nuts, [offers better sun] protection,” Day said. “It’s not all genetic. It’s because [people who eat this way] have, from their diet, antioxidants.”
It should be noted that while some of the supplements cited by the FDA do include antioxidants, this factor alone isn’t enough to protect the skin from harmful UV rays.
5. Treat your sunburn! If you do get sunburned, the AAD suggests taking cool baths to reduce heat and applying moisturizer to retain as much water in the skin as possible. Follow with an over-the-counter hydrocortisone.
If discomfort persists, aspirin or ibuprofen can help. And through it all, drink as much water as possible to avoid dehydration.
If you’re alarmed by your skin’s appearance or your symptoms don’t subside, contact a medical professional.