I’ve added another sun protection step to my routine. I’m now taking a “sun supplement.” Yep, in addition to my sunscreen, hat, and sunglasses, I’m starting each day by popping a pill that claims it will increase my skin’s UV defenses. I think of it as “boost” to my already mostly solid sun armor.
You may have heard that these types of supplements have come under scrutiny recently, and a few of the companies that sell them received warning letters from the FDA. The FDA’s position is that the products are misleading the public. They’ve clarified that no one should be skipping topical sunscreen because they’re taking a pill¹. I would also never suggest that. On the other hand, if the U.S. FDA would approve some of the stronger UVA filters that are currently available in several other countries, there may be less consumer interest in products to supplement sub-par sun protection…
Throughout this blog, you’ll read all about my frustrations with the various shortcomings of sunscreens sold in the U.S. (For a comprehensive look you can read here, here, or here.) In Europe, sunscreen makers can formulate their products with four ingredients that offer stronger protection from UVA rays. American manufacturers have been waiting for years for FDA approval on these ingredients. Until the FDA approves these, Americans will not be able to buy sunscreens with powerful UVA protection.
According to the Environmental Working Group’s 2018 Guide to Sunscreens, half of U.S. sunscreens could not be sold in Europe as they don’t offer enough UVA protection.
UVA rays penetrate the skin the deepest and cause damage that shows up in the long term as age spots, wrinkles, and loss of collagen. They get through even on the cloudiest or coolest of days and come right in through the windows of our homes, cars, and workplaces. And both UVA and UVB rays are responsible for skin cancer. We’re vulnerable to UVA rays all year round. If you don’t need a flashlight to see, that means UVA rays are present.
Even if you do your homework and pick the best possible sunscreen, you must apply a half teaspoon total to cover your face and neck to receive the protection stated on the bottle. You should plan on reapplying your sunscreen in this manner every two hours if you want to remain protected from the sun’s damaging rays.
Truly protecting your skin requires you to be conscientious every day; whether you’re at the pool, the beach, headed out to run errands or even staying indoors.
Every morning after washing my face I slather on the sunscreen. It’s the final step in my morning skincare. In this post, I went over some tips for keeping your sunscreen fresh throughout the day (because only applying it in the morning leaves your skin vulnerable in the afternoon).
Despite my diligence, I’m painfully aware that even a great sunscreen with the highest possible SPF blocks only about 98% percent of the sun’s UVB rays. And in the U.S. currently, there is no measure to indicate the percent of UVA rays being blocked. (Europe, Australia, Japan, etc. have all adopted standards for UVA protection.) These failings don’t leave me feeling all that protected.
So, I depend a great deal on “supplemental photo-protective measures.” The first thing I grab is my large brimmed hat. Next is my 100% UVA/UVB protective sunglasses. I try to wear the longest pants and shirts the weather will allow. I look for lighter weight fabrics that cover more skin when temperatures are high. (If the material is sheer you will need some sunscreen underneath, though.) You can also find sun protective clothing with what’s called a UPF rating (Ultraviolet Protection Factor). Coolibar is one of several brands to check out.
A possible solution?
Perusing the internet one evening, I came across a supplement that claims to strengthen your skin against the sun. It was called Heliocare, and my curiosity was immediately piqued. (Heliocare was not one of the companies sent a warning by the FDA.)
The main ingredient in Heliocare is called Polypodium leucotomos extract. The Polypodium leucotomos fern is said to have been found in the “wilds of Central and South America.” It was once an aquatic plant but was able to adapt to life on land. The fern has an impressive way of protecting itself from free radicals and the “harsh effects of the environment.” Heliocare recommends taking one capsule daily and using their product in conjunction with sunscreen.
The fern extract serves as an antioxidant. They claim that due to the fern’s self-preservation abilities it can help preserve the skin and ultimately build the body’s natural defense against UV rays. There are reviews on their site from people with sun allergies and people that burn easily swearing by it—stating that when taking the Heliocare they suffered no reactions or burns from the sun!
I was sold! (Heliocare retails for about thirty dollars for a bottle of sixty.)
To understand how Heliocare works you must first understand how free radicals accelerate aging and how antioxidants (like Polypodium leucotomos) can prevent the damage they do.
- Free radicals are all around us: We’re inundated with free radicals every day; UV radiation, tobacco, alcohol, and various other toxins are all ways that we are exposed.
- Free radicals seek out balance: A free radical is a molecule that’s missing an electron. It needs to find a replacement. A free radical can damage the surrounding cells in its effort to find its missing piece. This process is called oxidation.
- Free radicals do harm: As free radicals start to steal electrons from healthy cells to restore balance, they damage the healthy cells. This can start a very negative and destructive chain reaction that eventually leads to cell death.
- Free radicals can accelerate aging of the skin: When skin cells die off, it leads to skin aging. Although skin aging and cell death are a part of life, free radicals can accelerate the process.
- Antioxidants can help: Providing free radicals with antioxidants to replace their missing electrons stops the damaging process of oxidation. **Foods or supplements high in antioxidants can help to protect the skin from the harmful effects of free radicals.
About halfway through my bottle of Heliocare, I discovered a similar product called Sunsafe Rx. Sunsafe Rx makes similar claims as Heliocare and contains the super-fern Polypodium leucotomos, but it also includes several additional antioxidants. They list lutein, zeaxanthin (both purportedly protect eye tissue from UV radiation), Green Tea, astaxanthin (another antioxidant known for UV protection), Grape Seed Extract, Lycopene (another photo-protective anti-oxidant), Vitamin A, C, E (I wrote here about how C and E can offer some UV protection), and Omega-3 Fatty Acids. They call it their “Antioxidine Complex,” and have even posted research for each ingredient on their website. While I can’t be sure about the validity of all of the research/claims, I was impressed by all the extra antioxidants. So, when I finished my bottle of Heliocare, I ordered a bottle of the Sunsafe Rx to try.
Something that alarmed me though was the fact that Sunsafe Rx discourages the use of sunscreen altogether in their marketing. In the brochure that came with my order, there is a section titled “The Dangers of Sunscreen Lotion.” They go over some of the failings of sunscreen I covered at the beginning of this post. They also mention that it “blocks your production of vitamin D.” (I take a vitamin D supplement as I’m mindful of this issue. Some argue a supplement isn’t as good as the real thing, but I’ll take my chances over skin cancer, sun spots, and wrinkles.)
Sunsafe Rx seems worth looking into, but I would never recommend it as a substitute for sunscreen. It was twenty-nine dollars for thirty pills or forty-nine for sixty.
When asked for comment on the recent warning from the FDA, Napa Valley Bioscience (manufacturers of Sunsafe Rx) said they look forward to working with the FDA to “best describe the benefits” of their supplement. I’m going to bet that “The Dangers of Sunscreen Lotion” won’t be part of their new and improved brochure.
I suspect Heliocare was not given a warning because they make it clear that their product is meant to be used in addition to sunscreen.
(This would be in their best interest anyway since they manufacture and sell sunscreen as well.)
Currently, I’m working on finishing my bottle of Sunsafe Rx. I’m pretty attentive when it comes to sun protection, making it hard to say how well it works. (I tend to get very little if any color.) What I will say is that it gives me added peace of mind. If I feel it has been a bit too long since I’ve reapplied my sunscreen, for example, knowing that I took this supplement makes me think I maybe have a bit of extra protection until I can get to it. I can certainly see how that could become dangerous as well; you never want to be overconfident in your sun protection. I imagine this is one of the concerns the FDA has as well.
I would certainly recommend checking out either of these supplements. If you take sun protection seriously, this is something that could only potentially enhance the things you’re already doing right. Or put another way, it certainly couldn’t hurt anything.