Edible sun protection: Is this really a thing?

I get weekly e-mails from the American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgeons that link to recent news items of interest to the members. This week’s included a story about “sunscreen pill” supplements. This seemed like an obvious opportunity to add to my recurrent series, “Is this really a thing?” Previous topics have included:

The Food and Drug Administration recently sent letters to several companies marketing pills and liquids that claim to protect your skin from the sun.

These are pills that contain a bunch of vitamins and other things that act as antioxidants. More on this later.

This product is a liquid that is “Frequency enhanced” that can “cancel UV rays.”

Readers of the blog know that we like to have an open mind when it comes to claims like this, so we’ll bring some science to the table in a moment. But for the time being, let’s review how sunscreens actually work to protect us from UV rays.

There are two main categories of sunscreen: chemical blocks and physical blocks. Chemical sunscreens contain a variety of chemicals whose molecular structures absorb UV light and turn it into heat. Physical blocks contain zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. They physically reflect the UV light away from your skin. In general we like to recommend physical blocks because they tend to offer a little better protection than the chemical ones, and who wants to be putting chemicals on their skin anyway? In any case, you’re preventing UV rays from getting to your skin and damaging your collagen (helping you look good) and your DNA (preventing skin cancer).

So now, let’s turn to a couple of these products and examine their claims with a rational eye. First, the antioxidant pills!

Antioxidants are molecules that scavenge free radicals. What’s a free radical? In short, it’s a molecule that REALLY, REALLY wants to under go a chemical reaction with another, more stable molecule like your DNA or collagen, thus damaging the stable molecule. UV light can lead to free radical formation. Antioxidants like to eat up free radicals which is why we encourage people to eat diets that are high in antioxidants like green leafy vegetables, grapes, and blueberries.

Shameless plug: most of our private line of skin care products contain green tea extracts that are very high in antioxidants.

So would antioxidant pills provide “anti-aging protection from UV rays?” I think that saying that antioxidants protect you from UV rays probably is an overstatement. The UV rays are still hitting your molecules and inducing free radicals. Maybe the pills can help to decrease the amount of free radicals in your body, but honestly you’d be equally as well off by eating a balanced diet or simply taking a daily multivitamin.

Now, as to the water that cancels UV rays. Let’s look at the ingredient list:

I’m not sure what they mean by “proprietary frequencies.” But 2 mL is a little less than half a teaspoon of water. I’m dubious that that small amount of fluid is supposed to go through your entire body and somehow concentrate in your skin, which is a pretty big organ!

The manufacturers must be, too, because under the directions tab they write, “For extended intense exercise outdoors or if taking sun-sensitizing medications, use alternate protection after 30-40 minutes.”

It says it’s backed by science and they link to their study. Well, I read it. You can read it too right here.

The study is problematic in many ways. First of all, it’s just one study. Generally the scientific community wants to see many studies done by different organizations over time before the results are to be believed. Secondly, it was funded by the company that makes the water, an obvious conflict of interest. Finally, if you look closely at the statistics, the study even says, “Harmonized Water UV Protection trended towards outperforming Placebo p>0.05 and < 0.10.” This simply means we can’t be sure. But even then, those trends were only valid for one measurement of the six they examined, and were only present on the abdomen and not on the face.

A pair of 30-somethings escaping the winter in Curacao. Note the hat and sunscreen!

So, no, edible sunscreens are probably not a thing. If you’re going to be outside, wear SPF 50 sunscreen, preferably a physical block, and if you’re out for a long time, don’t forget to reapply!

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