The Grapevine

What Are Sunscreen Pills? FDA Warns They Don't Protect From Sun Damage

If you have been swallowing pills and capsules in hopes of being protected from sun damage, you may want to go back to using regular sunscreen. Recently, sellers of sunscreen pills were sent warnings by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for misleading consumers.

In a statement released May 22, the agency referred to the false claims made by companies selling sunscreen in the form of pill or capsule supplements.

Sun protection does not exist in the form of pills 

While regular sunscreen is applied directly onto the skin, ingestible sunscreen (in the form of pills or drinks) claims to work from the inside. No scientific research has supported the use of drinkable sunscreen while popping pills is said to offer significantly low levels of protection compared to traditional lotions. 

"There’s no pill or capsule that can replace your sunscreen," said FDA commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb. "We've found products purporting to provide protection from the sun that aren't delivering the advertised benefits. Instead, they're misleading consumers, and putting people at risk."

Oxybenzone  — a harmless ingredient or potential allergen?

Meanwhile, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) expressed concern over numerous sun protection products containing the chemical oxybenzone, which was suspected to disrupt hormones. Lawmakers in Hawaii recently moved to ban the ingredient as it was thought to be harmful to the ocean ecosystem.

However, oxybenzone is FDA-approved and continues to be recommended by many dermatologists. 

"I recommend sunscreens with oxybenzone whole-heartedly," said Dr. Kate Puttgen, a dermatologist at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center in Baltimore. "I haven’t seen any data that suggest the minuscule amount of absorption causes any risks."

The EWG is currently pushing for companies to go oxybenzone-free by 2020, recommending that people opt for physical sunscreens.

Physical sunscreens versus chemical sunscreens   

Based on ingredients and protection mechanism, sun protection products are classified as physical sunscreens and chemical sunscreens. The latter uses chemical ingredients like oxybenzone and octinoxate. These products work by penetrating the skin and absorbing UV radiation. 

Physical sunscreens (also known as mineral sunscreens) use natural minerals like titanium dioxide and zinc oxide. They work by forming a protective layer over the skin to block radiation from the sun.

Making the best of your sunscreen

While the debate on oxybenzone continues, it is important that people continue to use sunscreen as "there is very well-established evidence that exposure to UV radiation is associated with the development of skin cancer and regular sunscreen use mitigates this risk," said Dr. Jennifer MacGregor, a dermatologist at Union Square Laser Dermatology in New York.

Mineral-based sunscreens are recommended for eczema patients and for people with sensitive skin who are prone to irritation and allergic reactions.    

Consumer Reports also offered suggestions to increase the efficiency of sunscreens, recommending application 15 to 30 minutes before going outside. 

Dr. Elizabeth Hale, a professor of dermatology from the New York University, stated people should use approximately two milligrams of sunscreen per square centimeter of skin.

"In practice, this means applying the equivalent of a shot glass (two tablespoons) of sunscreen to the exposed areas of the face and body — a nickel-sized dollop to the face alone," she said.