Sunscreen is, without question, the best skincare product you can use. It keeps wrinkles and dark spots at bay, and protects against skin cancer, a potentially deadly disease that will kill an estimated 9,320 Americans in 2018 alone. Despite steady signs of growth among sunscreen users, though, most Americans still don't wear it. Much of the sunscreen available here is greasy, opaque, and even dangerous for coral reefs. As an indirect result, products like sun pills and “sun drops” have started trickling onto the market from beauty and supplement companies in the U.S.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which classifies sunscreen as a drug much like any other over-the-counter medication you can buy, hasn't approved a new sunscreen ingredient since 1999. Meanwhile, sunscreen consumers in Asia and Europe have a much wider variety of sunscreens, seven of which the FDA declined giving approval in 2017, stating lack of evidence.
“Many European sunscreen formulas contain filters that provide better protection against UVA [aging, skin-damaging rays that cause skin cancer] while also protecting against UVB [burning, damaging rays that also cause skin cancer]. And they're less oily, which makes them more appealing to use,” Parand Salmasinnia, VP of Dutch cosmetics company DMS Personal Care, told Bloomberg. But in the U.S., this lack of choice is herding consumers into the ready arms of pseudoscientific sun protection brands.
SPF, or Sun Protection Factor, is calculated with the assumption that users apply the recommended amount of product topically, which for most people's faces is a dollop of sunscreen the size of a nickel. “When used incorrectly, sunscreen may provide a false sense of protection,” stated the Government Accountability Office in a report on FDA sunscreen regulation. This “can ultimately lead to increased UV exposure.”
Heliocare is one company toeing the line between marketing and regulation in hopes to sell people on its supplements. “Heliocare's powerful antioxidant formula ... help[s] your skin protect itself and maintain its resilience and youthful appearance,” states the brand's website. The supplement, available to buy at Walgreens, CVS, and Amazon, claims on its box that Heliocare “helps maintain the skin's ability to protect itself against sun-related effects and aging.”
A newer sun-protection supplement, Sundots gummies, goes beyond proclaiming the positive attributes of its own product by fear-mongering about sunscreen. “We all know that sun exposure is harmful to our skin,” claims Sundots' website. “The bad news? Sunscreen, while an essential part of every sun protection regimen, doesn't provide the complete protection we need to stay healthy.”
While that may be true — the only thing that can completely protect you from the sun is sitting in a windowless room — there's no technology that protects skin from the sun better than properly-applied sunscreen, even our imperfect U.S. sunscreens.
Sunscreen pills aren't completely without evidence. Many sunscreen supplements, says cosmetic chemist Michelle Wong, contain Polypodium leucotomos extract, which early studies suggest helps the skin produce antioxidants. “This comes from a South American fern, and a couple of clinical studies have been done that have found that it does protect from sun damage,” she told The Outline in an email. “But it only gives very weak protection - around SPF 3. You'll definitely need to wear a sunscreen as well.” That's a far cry from SPF 30, which is what both the American Academy of Dermatology and the Skin Cancer Foundation recommend users wear.
To make matters worse, supplement claims aren't proactively verified by the FDA, so companies can make vague claims about the efficacy of their products, with only a small disclaimer clarifying their non-drug status.
"The issue is particularly serious in this country where even educated consumers assume that ‘natural’ or ‘herbal’ supplements that aren't tested and have no regulation must be better, safer, less 'harsh', etc," Dr. Jennifer MacGregor, a New York City-based dermatologist, wrote in an e-mail to The Outline. “‘Sunscreen’ pills might have some antioxidant effect (like vitamin C for example), might reduce inflammation from sun damage, or have some other effect in the body. They ARE NOT sunscreen.”
Wong agrees. “The lack of regulation means they can have other adulterants [or undesirable additions] in them, or they might not contain the amount of the ingredient that they claim,” she told me.
In May, the FDA issued a warning aimed at four sunscreen supplement companies (Advanced Skin Brightening Formula, Sunsafe Rx, Solaricare and Sunergetic), demanding they stop claiming they protect against sunburn, and Walmart removed them from their shelves. “Sunscreen pills are a fraud,” said New York senator Chuck Schumer. “Today we are asking the FDA to take these pills off the market. Plain and simple.” But as of writing, only Walmart has removed the supplements from store shelves. Elsewhere online, supplements in this format still promote themselves using language like Sunsafe Rx's warnings about “toxic sunscreen lotions” and Heliocare’s claims on retailer LovelySkin that the supplement “gradually builds UV tolerance.”
Sun drops or sunscreen boosters, a new type of sunscreen meant to be used minimally or mixed into moisturizer, are another product category emerging into resistance to underdeveloped domestic sunscreen products. The conceit is that, because traditional sunscreens are thick, greasy, and opaque, a superior product would require only a couple drops that could be mixed into a moisturizer. Coola Organic SPF 30 Full Spectrum 360° Sun Silk Drops, Dermalogica Solar Defense Booster SPF50, and Barbara Sturm Sun Drops are three such products, and the idea is incredibly appealing: why slather yourself in a goopy white paste when you can protect yourself with a silky, transparent serum instead?
But if used as recommended by marketing materials, sun drops won't provide the full advertised SPF, and instructs conflict, at best. The products direct consumers to use “a few drops“ or, in Coola's case, have an instructional video of a model using a single drop of sunscreen for her face, contradicting the voiceover that recommends using "several pumps." The bottle droppers dispense less than a pea-size amount with each pump or squeeze, and would take at least several pumps to equal the appropriate amount of product. Dermalogica appears to be the most careful with its marketing and instructions, advising users to “mix equal parts” moisturizer or foundation with its booster.
Dermatologists recommend two milligrams of SPF per centimeter of exposed skin, which amounts to about a nickel-sized dollop for most faces — so a couple drops of a sunscreen “booster,” whether straight to the skin or diluted in a moisturizer, is almost certainly not a full nickel-sized dose.
“The concept is appealing,” Dr. Nanette Silverberg, dermatologist at Mount Sinai West in NYC, told The Outline. But dilution, even one-to-one, “may lead to more than 50% loss of SPF... I think the FDA needs to address that directly by providing rules for this format of sunscreen.”
“I see no evidence in the blurb on the links you provided that they are either effective or preferable to conventional sunscreen formulations,” wrote Dr. Brian Diffey, photobiologist and inventor of the broad-spectrum designation for sunscreen products to evaluate them on both UVA and UVB protection. “I see nothing in the information provided by the manufacturers that would encourage me to use or recommend them.”
When The Outline asked the FDA to comment on sun drops, particularly Dermalogica Sun Booster, Coola Sun Drops, and Barbara Sturm Sun Drops, it responded that, although it can't comment on specific products, “for an OTC sunscreen product to be covered under the OTC Drug Review, it must be in an eligible dosage form.” Those forms are:
Sun “drops” and “boosters” meant to be mixed with other products do not appear on the list; nor do oral supplements. (Coola, Dermalogica, and Barbara Sturm did not respond to a request for comment.)
Studies show that sunbathers who think they're well-protected will be less likely to seek shade, ending up with more sun damage as a result. And given that one in five Americans will get skin cancer by the time they're seventy, ensuring people are adequately protected is a serious concern. Recommended sunscreen coverage means wearing half a teaspoon of sunscreen on your face, and a full shot glass on your body. If you're lucky enough to travel to Europe, Australia, or East Asia, stocking up on sunscreen there might not be the worst idea.
Update 7/10/2018 6:36pm: This article has been updated to clarify that Heliocare was not one of the companies warned by the FDA.