Heading to the beach or the ski slopes? Don’t forget your sunscreen pill. Come again?

This isn’t some futuristic way of protecting yourself from the sun’s harmful rays. Polypodium leucotomos, a tropical fern rich in the antioxidant compounds caffeic acid and ferulic acid, is the basis for Heliocare, Fernblock and Sunpill — all product names for the latest sun protection in supplement form.

Polypodium leucotomos is the cabbage palm fern grown in Central and South America and extracts from it may help prevent sunburn. The products are available over the counter at drug retailers. But are they all they’re hyped up to be? And whom are they for?

Users take one capsule daily with water or juice. Two capsules are recommended before activities like a tropical beach getaway or a game of golf in the midday sun.

A topical sunscreen must be used in addition to this natural antioxidant, which protects against UV damage and aging. Some preliminary evidence suggests that taking the supplement may reduce oxidative damage caused by UV light. But to date the studies have been small and mostly funded by the manufacturers. No long-term usage studies have been done, and because Polypodium leucotomos is a supplement, it’s not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration.

Is it putting people at risk?

In May 2018, The FDA issued a warning against companies "illegally marketing pills and capsules labeled as dietary supplements that make unproven drug claims about protecting consumers from the harms that come from sun exposure without meeting the FDA’s standards for safety and effectiveness."

FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said the pills "are putting people’s health at risk by giving consumers a false sense of security that a dietary supplement could prevent sunburn, reduce early skin aging caused by the sun, or protect from the risks of skin cancer."

The companies must review their websites and product labeling and correct these violations or face federal law violations.

Some doctors believe in the pill

Dr. Salvador Gonzalez, a dermatology researcher at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City and a paid consultant for the parent company behind Heliocare, has co-authored numerous studies on the plant and verifies that both lab and human trials show evidence that extracts of Polypodium leucotomos offer some sun protection.

However, with an estimated sun protection factor of about three, these are not magic sunscreen substitutes.

Who needs sunscreen in a pill?

Committing to taking a daily supplement may not be necessary for most people. Even poorly applied sunscreen products are better than no sun protection, and when using a shot glass full of broad spectrum SPF 30 or higher for the entire body during sun exposure, most people fare well if sunscreen is applied regularly.

A 2008 study in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology showed that a topical form of the antioxidant vitamins C and E helped prevent both visible sunburn and the type of DNA damage that can raise the risk of skin cancer.

Protective clothing, wide brim hats and sunglasses offer additional sun protection. However, for those who are extremely fair skinned, are particularly sensitive to sun exposure or have already had skin cancer, the added protection of the supplement may be worth the price.

If you want to try it, dermatologist Dr. Leslie Baumann of Baumann Cosmetic and Research Institute in Miami suggests taking the supplement on days you’ll be spending a lot of time outdoors — during a tropical vacation, say, or a working in the garden on a sunny day. Because you must also use the supplement in conjunction with sunscreen, the supplement acts as an additional measure of protection. Some studies show it may decrease redness after sun exposure as well.

Editor's note: This article has been updated since it was originally published in March 2015.

Can sunscreen pills protect your skin?
A supplement derived from a tropical fern can offer extra defense against sun damage to the skin.