FDA Says Claims About Sunscreen Pills Could Burn Sun Worshippers

FDA warns against using unproven sunscreen pills.
Joel Carillet/Getty Images

Bathing suit? Check. Beach towel? Got it. Sunscreen? Absolutely — but you may want to heed this new warning first.

The Food and Drug Administration is cautioning sun worshipers that a pill marketed to keep them safe from damaging rays actually could put them at risk.

Not to mention waste their money.

The agency this week warned four companies to stop advertising sunscreen pills and capsules as effective in preventing sunburn. FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb says the companies are misleading consumers and putting people at risk of harmful sun exposure.

“The FDA has not approved any pill for the claims these companies are making, so that should be a red flag,” said Theresa Eisenman, an FDA spokeswoman. “There’s no pill or capsule that can replace your sunscreen.”

At $25 to $50 a bottle, the pills are also pricy — especially if they don’t work.

The warning comes just in time for “Don’t Fry Day,” the Friday before the unofficial start of the summer vacation season — Memorial Day. The National Council on Skin Care Prevention designated the day to encourage people to cover up and use sunscreen to protect against skin cancer, the most common cancer in the U.S.

The FDA on Tuesday sent warning letters to Advanced Skin Brightening Formula, Sunsafe Rx, Solaricar and Sunergetic. The agency says the companies are illegally marketing dietary supplements and making unproven drug claims — namely, that their pills and capsules protect people from sun damage and, in some cases, even skin cancer.

On Friday, one of the companies was still advertising its product on its website as a method “backed by science” to protect eyes and skin from ultraviolet rays.

According to the warning letters, the companies claim their pills are useful in preventing or mitigating disease — an assertion the FDA says illegally establishes them as a drug. The FDA must approve all drugs sold for human consumption in the U.S.

These four companies aren’t the only ones advertising such products on popular sites such as Amazon, eBay and Walmart.com, so consumers have to be vigilant.

The only legitimate sunscreens are sold over the counter as creams, sprays, lotions or sticks, Eisenman said.

Board-certified dermatologist Dr. Thomas Rohrer advises his patients to apply sunscreen liberally, stay in the shade when possible, wear a hat with a wide brim and protect their eyes with sunglasses when they’re outside. And never sunbathe.

An SPF — sun protection factor — of more than 50 isn’t necessary, he said, although he uses sunscreen with an SPF of 85 or 100. Sunscreens with a higher SPF tend to cost a little more, but Rohrer, whose practice is in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, said they do no harm and may provide extra protection.

Effective ingredients are critical, but it’s also important to choose a sunscreen that feels good on the skin.

“Find one that is cosmetically appealing,” he said. “You have to find a sunscreen that you’ll use.”

It’s never too early to start protecting against skin cancer, according to new guidelines from the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force. The group advises doctors to counsel their patients about the importance of sunscreen for babies as young as 6 months old.

Rohrer says an annual screening for skin cancer is a good idea, especially for people who have had the disease or have a history of it in their family. May is Skin Cancer Awareness Month.

Finally, don’t ignore moles that change in size, shape or color or pimples in a sun-exposed area that linger, crust over, bleed or get larger. They could be signs of cancer or pre-cancer, he said.

One in five Americans will get skin cancer by the time they reach age 70, according to a 2010 study published in the Archives of Dermatology.

Susan Jacobson is an editor at The Penny Hoarder. She always wears sunscreen.