Why Can't We: Take Sunscreen in a Pill

Nov 3, 2011
Outside Magazine
Sunscreen Pill

Sunscreen Pill    Photo: Jameson Simpson

While humans can’t pop a capsule to protect our cells from UV damage, it could happen someday if scientists can figure out a natural process that occurs with many forms of ocean coral. Since the 1960s, ­researchers have been ­examining a symbiotic relationship between coral and certain types of sea algae, which provide amino acids that intercept UV light and dissipate it as heat.

Such compounds would be “the ideal form of sun­screen,” says Malcolm Shick, professor of marine sciences at the University of Maine. In lab experiments using red algae and smooth cauliflower coral, Shick’s team discovered that the effects of these compounds, known as mycosporine-­like amino acids (MAAs), were passed up the food chain to fish and urchins, protecting them from UV damage, too. This got scientists thinking that sun-fighting MAAs could be absorbed by humans through diet.

Unfortunately, it isn’t that simple. “I ate an awful lot of sushi containing the compounds,” says Shick, who gorged for months on MAA-rich fish and seaweed. “Then I biopsied myself, but there was nothing there.” More scientific trials with mice came up negative as well, leading researchers to speculate that stomach acids may break the aminos down before they’re absorbed.

More recently, researchers at King’s College London have been working to find a way to deliver the substance in a coated pill. There are still plenty of hurdles, not least of which is how to synthesize enough MAAs in the first place. If all goes well, ­human testing could begin within two years.