The Sunscreen Pill

Research is underway to use ferns and corals in producing ingestible UV protection

Although further research is needed, sunscreen pills could provide a better alternative to SPF lotions and (for the love of God) "face-kinis". Photo: AFP/AFP/GettyImages
Although further research is needed, sunscreen pills could provide a better alternative to SPF lotions and (for the love of God) “face-kinis”. Photo: AFP/AFP/GettyImages

Today, there are more new cases of skin cancer annually than breast, prostate, lung, and colon cancers combined, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. One in five Americans will develop skin cancer of some sort in their lifetime. These stats are especially pertinent for surfers, who spend more time than most absorbing the harmful rays of the sun. However, current research surrounding ferns and corals may allow us to avoid applying and reapplying that SPF 30. Potentially, protection from the sun could be as easy as swallowing a pill.

Sunscreen in pill form is an attractive idea—one that’s already resulted in various supplements that claim to do just that. So far, the FDA doesn’t regulate supplements, therefore these new pills are not required to prove their claims of effective sun protection. “Sunscreen,” however, is technically classified as both a cosmetic (anything applied to the body for cleansing or beautifying), and a drug (intended for treatment or prevention). That means it’s more strictly regulated by the FDA, and research is currently underway to determine if a sunscreen pill can be effective enough to meet FDA standards.

For one of the potential oral sunscreens, researchers are testing the extract of a tropical fern, Polypodium leucotoms. The fern, which had been used in primitive medicine in South America to treat psoriasis and dermatitis, is ideal for sunscreen because of its antioxidant properties. Exposure to UV radiation forms skin damaging free radicals and antioxidants are known to destroy those free radicals in the body and skin.

Salvador Gonzalez, a dermatologist and consultant with the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, has been researching the fern extract since the early ‘90s. Gonzalez has documented the fern extract’s ability to reduce free radical formation, DNA damage, as well as many of the causes of photo-aging. Preliminary results from the studies were positive. Participants who ingested the extract and were exposed to double the amount of UV light needed to induce sunburn saw sun damage reduced by 84 percent. The study was too small to be statistically significant, but larger studies are in the works.

While the research sounds promising, scientists are not without concerns. Gonzalez told Nature Journal last November that, “Increasing the amount of antioxidants in a pill to a level that could robustly block sun damage would probably cause unwanted side effects.”

Another type of ingestible sunscreen made from symbiotic algae found in coral is being researched as well. For more than five years, Dr. Paul Long at King’s College London has been researching the mycosporine amino acids (MAAs) that naturally occur in the algae. These amino acids essentially function as sunscreen for the organisms that are constantly exposed to high amounts of UV radiation in the clear, shallow waters of equatorial regions. The algae pass the protective properties onto the coral, and even to fish who feed on them. Long is seeking a patent for the ingredients for pill use, and in 2012, King’s College London entered into a partnership with Aethic, a UK skincare company, to commercialize the use of MAAs in sunscreen.

Ironically, many sunscreen lotions commercially available today contain ingredients that activate dormant viruses within the zooxanthellae living in the coral. National Geographic said, “The chemicals cause the viruses to replicate until their algae hosts explode, spilling viruses into the surrounding seawater, where they can infect neighboring communities.” An estimated 4,000 to 6,000 metric tons of sunscreen wash off greased-up beachgoers annually into the ocean. Researchers theorize that 10 percent of coral reefs are threatened by sunscreen-induced bleaching. This makes the idea of an all-natural, effective sunscreen derived from the very zooxanthellae our current sunscreens are destroying sound that much more appealing.

But don’t hold you breath for the sunscreen pill. More research and trials are needed before we can put down our standard SPF lotions for good. Until then, the importance of putting that greasy barrier between you and our nearest star can’t be overstated.