Have you ever slathered on sunscreen but somehow managed to miss your nose? Or the back of your hand? Or the tops of your feet? You're not the only one. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, most people apply less than half of the optimal amount of sunscreen, a habit that adds up to a lot of burned patches and uncomfortable rides home from the beach.
If you don't completely trust your sunscreen skills, you might be interested in Heliocare, a supplement that promises sun protection in a pill. Each Heliocare capsule contains 240 milligrams of an extract of Polypodium leucotomos, a tropical fern rich in antioxidant compounds such as caffeic acid and ferulic acid.
Heliocare is sold at major drug stores including CVS, Walgreens and Wal-Mart. A bottle of 60 capsules costs about $50.
The company website says Heliocare is an "all natural oral antioxidant which helps protect against UV ray damage and aging." The fine print clarifies that "it is not a sunscreen and should be used in addition to topical skin protection."
The bottom line
No supplement could ever replace the need for sunscreen, but the idea of sun protection in a pill isn't as far-fetched as it may sound, says Dr. John Murray, a professor of medicine in the dermatology department at Duke University School of Medicine in Durham, N.C.
As Murray explains, sun damage is an oxidative process. UV rays can trigger the release of harmful compoundsknown as free radicals, and antioxidants can help protect the skin by mopping up the free radicals before they have a chance to cause mischief. In fact, Murray says, plants contain antioxidants largely to protect themselves from harmful rays.
But taking a pill isn't necessarily the best way to harness the protective power of antioxidants, Murray says. Instead, antioxidants are likely to be more effective if they are applied directly to the skin: In 2008, Murray and colleagues published a study showing that a topical ointment containing antioxidant vitamins C and E helped prevent both visible sunburn and the type of DNA damage that can raise the risk of skin cancer.
"Ingesting a pill doesn't mean that the antioxidants will actually reach the skin," Murray says. For example, you can protect your skin somewhat by taking vitamin E and vitamin C supplements, but "the effect isn't going to be as great as [topical] vitamins E and C."
Murray doesn't recommend any particular product. However, some sunscreens, including Aveeno Continuous Protection Sunblock Lotion and Soleil Expert Sun Care, do contain antioxidant vitamins.
There is solid evidence from the lab and human trials that extracts of Polypodium leucotomos -- Heliocare's active ingredient -- can offer at least some sun protection, says Dr. Salvador Gonzalez, a dermatology researcher at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City who has co-authored at least 17 studies on the plant.
For example, he co-wrote a study published earlier this year that found that a Polypodium leucotomos extract blocked skin-damaging enzymes and helped build up collagen in human skin samples exposed to UV rays. Gonzalez is a paid consultant for Industrial Farmaceutica Cantabria S.A., the Madrid-based parent company behind Heliocare.
"It's important to keep in mind that Heliocare is not a magic bullet against sunburn," Gonzalez says. He estimates that the supplement provides a sun protection factor of 3, which would put it roughly on par with a weak sunscreen. It's certainly not enough to completely prevent sunburn, he adds, but any burns would be slower to develop and less severe.
Gonzalez says that Heliocare would be especially helpful for fair-skinned people and anyone undergoing UV treatments for skin problems. Whether they -- or anyone else -- think that the extra protection is worth $50 a bottle is another matter.
Curious about a health product? E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more at latimes.com/skeptic.
THE HEALTHY SKEPTIC