Home Supplements There's a harsh new warning against pills and capsules that claim to work like sunscreen — here's what to know

There's a harsh new warning against pills and capsules that claim to work like sunscreen — here's what to know

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Don’t ditch your sunscreen this summer.

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  • Some companies sell dietary supplements that promise to protect skin from sun damage.
  • On May 22, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released a statement saying these pills and capsules can’t replace sunscreen.
  • INSIDER asked two dermatologists about the pills and both agreed: You can’t rely on supplements alone to protect your skin from UV light.
  • Instead, use sunscreen, wear protective clothes, seek shade, and avoid peak sunlight hours.

Proper sunscreen use is important — but it is not fun. You have apply it before you go outside, then reapply every two hours or after you swim or sweat, according to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD). When you’re really following the instructions it can feel like your beach day is less about relaxation and more about periodically slathering yourself in expensive lotion.

All that reapplying might tempt you to reach for a simpler fix — say, an over-the-counter pill that claims to protect you from sun damage.

Pills like this really are available online and in stores. But US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is here to tell you that their claims are too good to be true.

On May 22, FDA commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb released a lengthy statement on sunscreens, and it had one very strong warning for consumers: “There’s no pill or capsule that can replace your sunscreen.”

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That same day, the FDA sent warning letters to the makers of Advanced Skin Brightening Formula, Sunsafe Rx, Sunergetic, and Solaricare — dietary supplements promising some amount of protection from the sun, the statement added.

“These companies … 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,” Gottlieb wrote.

In an email to INSIDER, a representative from Sunsafe Rx said that “we don’t market Sunsafe Rx as a sunscreen, and we certainly don’t tell consumers that they don’t need any other protection from the sun or that they don’t also need to use a topical sunscreen. Everyone should exercise caution when exposed to the sun. We look forward to working with the FDA to figure out how we can best describe the benefits of Sunsafe Rx.”

The manufacturers of the other supplements did not immediately respond to INSIDER’s requests for comment.

INSIDER asked two dermatologists for their take on “sunscreen” supplements — and both agreed that you can’t rely on them.

A pill can’t replace sunscreen and sun-protective behaviors, experts say.

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“There is no substitute for traditional sunscreen and sun protective behavior,” Dr. Joshua Zeichner, director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital, told INSIDER. (“Sun protective behavior” means things like wearing a hat and staying in the shade.) “While the promise of sun protection from supplements is enticing, you are putting yourself at risk for sunburn and skin cancer by using these without sunscreen.”

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The idea of sun-protection pills isn’t entirely baseless, though — in fact, it does have some basis in science.

A few supplement ingredients have been studied for their potential to fight sun damage, dermatologist Dr. Marissa Garshick told INSIDER. She pointed to nicotinamide (a fancy name for vitamin B3) which was shown to reduce skin cancers and pre-cancers in a 2015 study. Both Garshick and Zeichner also mentioned polypodium leucotomos— a fern extract that’s also been shown to have some protective effects, according to the AAD.

But Garshick stressed that there’s still not enough evidence for anyone to toss out their sunscreen and floppy hat in favor of supplements.

The ultimate takeaway is simple: Don’t rely on pills alone for sun protection.

Instead, use dermatologist-approved strategies.

Find shade when possible.
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To actually protect your skin, Garshick said dermatologists recommend the following strategies:

  • Wear sunscreen labeled “broad spectrum” — that means it protects against UVA and UVB light.
  • Make sure your sunscreen is at least SPF 30
  • Wear a hat, sunglasses, and perhaps even UV-protection clothing.
  • Seek shade when possible and avoid the sun between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.

Combining these strategies is key, she explained, since one might not be enough. For example: A study published last year found that the shade of beach umbrellas alone wasn’t enough to prevent sunburns.

If you want to add a supplement to your routine, ask a doctor first.

It’s smart to check with a doctor before you start a new supplement.
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Over-the-counter supplements aren’t regulated like prescription drugs are, and they may even be dangerous. It’s estimated that they send more than 20,000 Americans to the emergency room every year.

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“I always recommend people clear any supplement that they are taking with a medical provider to ensure it makes sense for them,” Garshick said.

Read the FDA’s full statement on sunscreen right here.

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