Every July, the airwaves fill with ads for oral sunscreen products promising to protect you. But do these pills and capsules really offer the same amount of protection that traditional lotions and creams do? No, says a top dermatologist. Such products do work, but should only be used along with traditional sunscreens.
"These products are fine in that may offer additional protection from the sun, but they should not be used in place of regular sunscreen products. It’s not an either one-or-the-other type of thing," says Rebecca Tung, M.D., division director of dermatology at Loyola University Medical Center.
Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the U.S., with more than 3.5 million cases diagnosed annually. Cases of skin cancer jumped 77 percent over the past two decades, and the incidence of melanoma, the most dangerous form, has doubled.
Sunscreen products have been around since the 1940s and, although they are effective, they have drawbacks. Most commonly available in lotions, creams or sprays, they can be sticky, leave a whitish residue, and must be reapplied frequently. Hence the growing market for these oral sunscreens, without the bother than can accompany the traditional topical products applied directly to the skin.
Oral sunscreens marketed under different names, including "Heliocare," "Fernblock," and "Sunpill." They all contain extracts of an herb found in the cabbage leaf plant known as Polypodium leucotomos. When taken internally, such pills are advertised to blunt the impact of harmful UV rays, preventing sun damage that leads to sunburn, premature aging, and skin cancer.
Since they work from the inside out, there’s no concern about them rubbing off or needing to reapply them to the skin. But the problem is that they are not as effective as the traditional sunscreen products, says Dr. Tung.
These products work because they contain strong antioxidant properties, says Dr. Tung.
"These products can be valuable when they are used as an extra defense against the sun’s damaging UV rays. They are also anti-inflammatory in nature, and their antioxidants help sop up free radicals and help prevent cellular damage within the body," she says.
However, these products are not 100 percent effective because they are based on the body’s ability to absorb them, which can vary person to person, she notes. Therefore, they should not be used alone, but in conjunction with traditional topical products, she says.
Here are Dr. Tung’s tips to protect against the sun:
- Avoid sun exposure between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., when the sun’s rays are the strongest.
- Use sunscreen every day, including on cloudy and rainy days.
- Apply sunscreen liberally. If you are using lotion, envision the amount that would fill a shot glass, and use that much for each application.
- Reapply sunscreen every two hours, and more often if you are playing sports, sweating, swimming, or diving.
- Use a product labeled at least SPF 30. If you have a lot of freckles or hyperpigmentation (a darkening of the skin) use sun protection that also contains titanium or zinc for extra protection.
- Choose a sunscreen labeled "broad spectrum" to protect against both UVA and UVB rays.
- Use sunscreen year-around. The sun’s rays can also be damaging on bright, clear days.
- Wear a hat and protective clothing.
- Invest in a sun umbrella at the beach and be sure you rotate it to shield yourself from the sun.
- Don’t forget your eyes. Wear sunglasses that offer UV protection in order to protect against aging and cataracts.
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