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Probably Don't Eat a Pill Instead of Wearing Sunscreen

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It’s now officially summer, which means it’s time to get serious about sun protection. Wearing sunscreen? Advisable. Taking a supplement? Not so much.

Several supplement companies have recently found themselves under scrutiny for making misleading claims about sun protection, and now Walmart has removed them from its shelves, the New York Post reports.

Their troubles started back in May, when FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb released an official statement about sunscreen and supplements. In it, he noted that the agency had sent warning letters to four supplement companies: “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.”

The companies warned were Advanced Skin Brightening Formula, Sunsafe Rx, Solaricare, and Sunergetic. Some of the potentially misleading language in the companies’ marketing materials included phrases like “it’s basically an oral sunscreen” and “contains ingredients that reduce oxidative stress.” The warning letters state that companies have to “review product websites and product labeling to ensure that the claims they are making don’t violate federal law.”

Last week, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) advocated that the FDA go a step further and actually mandate that the products be pulled from shelves. “While an agency warning is a good step, it might not be enough to force the necessary marketing changes that are still fueling summer sales,” he said, according to the New York Daily News.

Schumer’s office sent Racked the following statement, complete with sun puns: “I applaud Walmart for seeing the light when it comes to the dangers and the misleading promises of ‘sunscreen pills.’ I maintain that the FDA should be burning mad at the handful of companies marketing shady pills and capsules as a new alternative to long-tested SPF sun protection and am hopeful that more federal action is forthcoming. These companies need to clean up their act before consumers literally get burned and I will continue to pay careful attention to what is being done on the regulatory side of this issue.”

The supplement industry is relatively unregulated. These companies are making drug-like claims that have not been properly validated, according to the FDA.

While all of the companies’ formulas are different, at least three of the four have one ingredient in common, polypodium leucotomos. The ingredient is a fern extract purported to have antioxidant effects, which broadly means it could help damaged cells, presumably those damaged by the sun. But the FDA calls these claims “unproven.”

The four companies called out by the FDA aren’t the only suncare supplements making claims like these. One brand called Heliocare has been around for years. A 2009 LA Times article noted, “The company website says Heliocare is an ‘all natural oral antioxidant which helps protect against UV ray damage and aging.’” Recent press releases sent to Racked, however, suggest Heliocare realized it had to market its product more vaguely. The current marketing copy talks about blocking free radicals and environmental protection without mentioning the sun at all, though the brand’s still called Heliocare and features a sun logo.

A newer company, Sundots, looks like any number of hip digital startups now out there. It proudly proclaims on its homepage: “Sun protection in a daily gummy. … Sunscreen, while an essential part of every sun protection regimen, doesn’t provide the complete protection we need to stay healthy.” Sundots even has a post on its Instagram page featuring a bottle of what is presumably sunscreen under a skull-and-crossbones image. The caption reads, “When was the last time you read the ingredients on your sunscreen?”

While most of the supplements come with a disclaimer that consumers should still use sunscreen, the concern that people will just think they can pop a pill and avoid the still-unpleasant and time-consuming task of applying sunscreen is real. The truism that there is no magic pill is applicable here.

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