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Participants at the All-Terra King of the Mountain trail race.     Photo: patrimonio designs limited/Shutterstock

Q:

Should I Take a Sunscreen Pill?

As an athlete who spends a lot of time in the sun, I wonder if I should be taking sunscreen pills. Do they work as well as lotions?

A:There are a few products on the market that promise to protect skin from the damaging effects of the sun, including Heliocare, SunPill, and Murad’s Pomphenol Sunguard. But these products are antioxidant supplements, not sunscreens. As such, they are unregulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and on their own do not protect against sunburn.

The idea behind these supplements is that they’ll prevent the "production of ‘free radicals,’ molecules which can cause damage to your cells’ DNA and have been long-associated with different types of cancer," writes Dr. Lily Talakoub, a Virginia-based dermatologist. While the main ingredients in the pills listed above have shown promise in UV resistance or antioxidant capabilities, how much they’re absorbed into the skin is debatable, and they will certainly not give your skin an SPF rating.

However, that’s exactly what Dr. Paul Long of King’s College London hopes to do with a sunscreen tablet currently in development. Long and his colleagues observed that coral reefs make their own sunscreen and have figured out how these sun-protective compounds are produced. He hopes to make a pill “in the near future” (he’s previously estimated within the next four years) that would allow the protective compounds to accumulate “in light sensitive tissues such as skin and eye lens like we see in marine fish and other marine animals” that feed on coral, Long writes in an email. Should the sunscreen compound accumulate in the skin, as Long hopes, it will be possible to determine its sun-protection factor just like topical sunscreen.

THE BOTTOM LINE: The current “sunscreen pills” on the market are not, in fact, sunscreen, but antioxidant supplements. The general consensus is that taking these pills is not harmful, but they must be used in conjunction with topical sunscreen to protect against the sun’s UV rays. In the near future, however, a prescription tablet may be available that is, indeed, a sunscreen.

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