More threads by David Baxter PhD

David Baxter PhD

Late Founder
Are 'Sunscreen Pills' Like Heliocare for Real?
Berkeley Wellness
June 3, 2019

Most of us would be delighted if we could take a pill, especially one containing “natural” ingredients, that would protect our skin from sun damage, instead of having to slather on sunscreen. With that in mind, researchers have been studying a wide variety of vitamins, vitamin derivatives, and botanical ingredients—most of them antioxidants—as potential oral photoprotective agents. So far, no truly effective “oral sunscreen” has been discovered. But that hasn’t stopped various companies from claiming that their dietary supplements provide additional sun protection beyond what you get from even the best sunscreen—by “working from the inside out,” as some marketers put it.

While most of these formulas have little or no scientific support, one herbal product, Heliocare, does have some well-designed, albeit preliminary, research behind it. But that doesn’t mean you should take it.

Hello Heliocare?
Sold in Europe for many years, Heliocare capsules contain an extract from the leaves of a tropical fern, Polypodium leucotomos, which has been used in South America and Spain to treat psoriasis and other skin conditions. Some copycat products, with names such as Sunsafe Rx, Shade Factor, and Sun Stopper, also contain P. leucotomos extracts.

Heliocare’s package, label, and website say nothing about sun protection, at least in the U.S., presumably because the FDA would forbid such an unproven medical claim for a dietary supplement. They say only that Heliocare supplies polyphenol compounds that act as antioxidants to help maintain skin health by protecting against “the aging effects of free radicals,” produced in response to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun. But the Heliocare logo includes a stylized image of the sun; the name Heliocare is based on the Greek word for sun (helios); and the fern extract has been trademarked as Fernblock, which sounds suspiciously like sun block.

Research suggests that compounds in P. leucotomos may also have anti-inflammatory and immune-modulating effects that may, in theory, help limit sun damage.

Many other websites explicitly tout P. leucotomos - containing supplements for sun protection, based in part on studies on Heliocare. Most of the research has been animal studies or test-tube studies usinghuman cells. Among the few small human studies was one in the Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology in 2015. For two months, 40 people took either Heliocare or a placebo twice a day. When UV light was applied to their buttocks (a body part not usually exposed to the sun) for several minutes, the Heliocare group tended to have less sunburn (erythema) than the placebo group.

It’s unclear from this and other research whether the supplement would have a significant effect in the real world. It certainly doesn’t mean that Heliocare can replace effective sunscreens or provide meaningful additional benefit to them. Heliocare’s manufacturer has sponsored most of the studies on it, and the researchers have often had ties to the company. Heliocare costs $30 a month and presumably has to be taken long term to have an effect.

According to the Natural Medicines database, there’s insufficient reliable information on the effectiveness of P. leucotomos extracts for sun protection or on their long-term safety. We agree.

FDA warnings
In 2018, the FDA sent warning letters to several supplements makers because, by claiming to protect the skin from sun damage, they were, in effect, marketing their products as drugs, which need to be approved for safety and efficacy. According to the FDA, these companies are “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.” Some of the supplements were removed from the market (or stopped making illegal claims), but others have taken their place.

Bottom line
We don’t recommend consuming any dietary supplement as a way to prevent sunburn and other skin damage. While there are some preliminary studies on P. leucotomos, we’d want to see larger, longer studies by independent researchers in real-world settings. In a news release from the American Academy of Dermatology, Henry Lim, MD, chairman of the department of dermatology at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, noted that, of all ingredients in “sunscreen pills,” the strongest research has involved P. leucotomos — but that the level of protection would be the equivalent of only SPF 3 to 5. That is almost nothing compared to SPF 30 and higher, recommended by dermatologists.

Antioxidants vs. the Sun
Sun exposure increases the production of free radicals in the skin, which have been implicated in sun-induced oxidative damage that causes sunburn and photoaging and may promote skin cancer. The skin contains a variety of antioxidants, including carotenoids and vitamins C and E, which help mop up free radicals. So it’s logical to think that consuming extra antioxidants may offer extra solar protection. And indeed, as a review paper in Frontiers in Medicine in 2018 noted, many studies have found that consuming various antioxidants can help the skin withstand sun damage, at least to a small degree.

Lab research, much of it done in Germany, has shown that certain antioxidants from food or supplements can reduce solar damage to cells. Some human studies also suggest that carotenoids (notably beta carotene) may offer some protection. For instance, in a small German study in the Journal of Nutrition back in 2001, people were fed 1½ ounces of tomato paste (rich in lycopene, another carotenoid) a day for 10 weeks. When exposed to UV rays in a lab, they had 40 percent less skin redness than a control group. Most studies testing vitamin C or E supplements have found that they do not protect against UV, though some suggest that the two combined may act synergistically to help a little.

What you should do
We don’t recommend antioxidant supplements for any purpose. In particular, some studies have found that high-dose beta carotene pills can increase the risk of lung cancer in smokers. Antioxidant-rich plant foods are always a better and safer way to get a wide array of antioxidants, and they may offer some modest protection against sun damage—but they certainly can’t replace sunscreens.Still, even the best sunscreen, plus all the antioxidants in the world, shouldn’t give you a false sense of security when you’re out in the sun. So minimize sun exposure and wear protective clothing. And eat a diet rich in fruits and vegetables—for the good of your skin as well as the rest of your body.
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