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In the midst of hot girl summer, writer and sun bunny Lisa Bowman investigates whether sunscreen supplements are worth spending our hard-earned cash on. 

The vitamin and supplement market in the UK has grown 13.5% per year on average between 2017-2022 and is currently worth £1.5 billion, according to IBISWorld.

With summers in the UK hotting up, you may have seen ads for ‘sunscreen pills’ popping up the ‘gram – dietary supplements that claim to help boost protection against damaging UV rays. Some people might be under a misconception you can take these supplements instead of SPF, but that’d be a mistake. We explore the truth behind UV-busting ingredients and ask the experts just how dangerous it is to rely on sunscreen supplements alone.

An unlikely tropical fern is a promising ingredient against harmful UV rays

The most commonly known sun protection pill is Heliocare, which promises ‘additional free radical protection from within’. The star ingredient is extract of polypodium leucotomos, a fern native to Central and South America. While it doesn’t block UV rays from entering the body, it’s thought to decrease the damage they cause.

“There are multiple studies that prove the antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and immunoprotective actions of this fern-based ingredient,” says Dr Beth Goldstein, dermatologist and co-founder of sunscreen brand Modern Ritual. 

“In addition, this ingredient reduces sun sensitivity in those with several conditions including polymorphous light eruption (known as ‘sun poisoning’) and melasma.

“Extensive studies demonstrate reduction in sunburn cells, which is a proxy for sun damage, when taking this medication prior to UV exposure. It also improves the integrity of the cell membrane and elastin expression, reducing signs of photoaging.”

One small study of40 adults found that 240mg of polypodium leucotomos extract, taken twice daily for 60 days, reduced the damaging effects of UV radiation. Another pilot study, published in the journal Photodermatology Photoimmunology and Photomedicine, showed that taking two 240mg supplements of the same extract for 15 days, increased skin’s defence against burning, with sun-induced inflammation reducing faster.

It’s worth flagging that both studies were from 2015, and both concluded with researchers noting that further studies need to be undertaken. 

Which other vitamins/minerals may offer skin protection?

Cver the past decade, however, we have seen more and more research confirm the role of other vitamins and nutrients in bolstering our body’s ability to protect itself from harmful rays. Research shows that micronutrients such as carotenoids, vitamins E and C, and polyphenols contribute to antioxidant defence, as well as protecting the skin against UV damage.

Vitamin B3, selenium, astaxanthin, beta carotene and lycopene have also been shown to have protective properties. While they don’t offer the same protection as sun cream, getting enough of these nutrients regularly may well help support general skin health in the long-term. 

Can we get extra sun protection from our diet?

Really, we should all be trying to get our vitamins and minerals from food, rather than supplements, wherever possible.

“Obtaining vitamins and minerals from a balanced diet is certainly beneficial in maintaining overall health and wellness,” explains cosmetic chemist, Kelly Dobos. “However, we shouldn’t be relying on our diet – or supplements – for sun protection. Reviews of studies with lycopene, for example, were only able to achieve a small change in innate protection.”

She points to a study conducted in Germany, which got people to eat about two and a half tablespoons of lycopene, lutein and beta carotene-rich tomato paste every day for 10 weeks, along with 10g of olive oil (which helps absorption of those compounds). “Measurements at four weeks showed no difference in redness from UV exposure from the placebo group, and only a slight difference at the 10 week mark,” she says.  Clearly, there’s no replacement for actual sun protection – even if certain nutrients can benefit us in other ways.

Can sun protection supplements be used instead of sunscreen?

It’s a hard no – while topical sunscreen can be a pain, it’s a must if you plan on spending time in the sun. And it’s important to flag that these supplement brands aren’t marketing themselves as an alternative to sunscreen; they’re designed to act as a boost to your existing skincare regimen.

But Dobbs believes that people may mistakenly think they can take a supplement in place of lotion: “While it might sound easier to pop a pill rather than apply and reapply sunscreens, unfortunately there’s little evidence that these supplements are truly useful. In fact, the sense of false protection they could give is dangerous.”

Even if they do offer a level of damage control, they should never be relied on as your only protective measure – even Heliocare stresses that its oral capsules should be used in conjunction with sunscreen. (Heads up, their topical oil-free facial SPF50 is great – I’ve been using it for years after a dermatologist recommended it to me.) 

“Supplements are in no way a ‘sunscreen’ but rather an adjunct to use in addition to a sun protective programme, including sunscreen, hats, protective clothing, seeking shade and avoiding midday sun,” adds Dr Goldstein. 

The best way to protect your skin from the sun

It’s important to note that sunscreen doesn’t entirely block UV rays from entering the body. The SPF rating refers to the product’s ability to block UVB rays (the rays that make skin burn, and the cause of most skin cancers). According to the British Skin Foundation, SPF 30 blocks about 97% of UVB rays (when applied correctly) while SPF 50 blocks around 98%.

“We should not rely only on sunscreen to protect ourselves from the sun, but should wear suitable clothing, and avoid being in direct sunlight during the hottest part of the day,” advises Dr Hana Patel, GP and mental health coach. 

“With regards to sunscreen, it’s recommended that whatever brand we choose, it should have a minimum of SPF30 to protect again UVB, and at least a 4-star UVA protection rating. 

“For best results, sunscreen should be applied twice before going out – at least 30 minutes before and just before we go out. Water and the sun can lead to sun cream being washed off or drying out, and should be re-applied every two hours.” 

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