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.
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.
Antioxidants vs. the Sun
Many studies have found that consuming various antioxidants can help the skin withstand sun damage, at least to a small degree. But that doesn't mean you should turn to antioxidant supplements for sun protection.
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.
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 theAmerican 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.
This article first appeared in the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter.
Also see Sunscreen Myths vs. Facts.
Published June 03, 2019