‘A sucker born every minute’: Why experts are worried about edible sunscreens
Edible sunscreens may have had their day in the sun with experts warning that there is no evidence they offer protection and may even cause harm.
Sunscreen in liquid or pill forms theoretically replace the need to apply greasy lotions and have become popular in the US as well as online.
It’s easy to see the appeal.
Although the Sun Smart campaign has been working, we still have one of the highest rates of melanoma in the world and less than half Australian adults use sun protection on a daily basis. Americans are even less likely to use protection.
Not only is sunscreen messy, many people are concerned about what they are putting on their skin.
Enter antioxidant-infused drinks and tablets that claim to offer protection from the inside-out by supporting the skin’s natural barrier, increasing the exposure needed for sunburn and decreasing DNA damage as well UV-induced DNA damage.
“If we can make skin care as easy and delicious as drinking a Red Bull, I thought, people would use it more,” Dr. Bobby Awadalla, a dermatologist who developed a popular liquid form of sunscreen called, UVO, told The Orange County Register. “People resist putting cream on their skin because they don’t like the greasy feel and smell. Athletes don’t like sunscreen dripping in their eyes.”
It is amazing. Or it would be if it actually worked.
Despite impressive anecdotes, UVO and products like it have experts worried.
“They’re basically a cocktail of antioxidants and have [in varying forms] been around for a very long time,” explains Graham Mann, the research director at the Melanoma Institute Australia.
“All forms of nutritional supplements are able to be marketed without research evidence about what they actually do.”
Dr. David J. Leffell, the chief of dermatologic surgery and cutaneous oncology at the Yale School of Medicine, is less delicate with his wording.
“If you tell someone, ‘You can take this pill before you go out or you can drink this nice, refreshing, berry-flavored drink,’ they are hearing ‘magic bullet’,” Leffell told the New York Times. “They think, ‘I’ll drink this, and then I can do whatever I want because I’ll be protected’… There is a sucker born every minute.”
If people were suckers for a harmless product, that would be one thing, but Mann is concerned that this is not the case.
He says that although supplements may not need evidence to make claims, there is a “reasonable amount of research” on the effect of taking of oral antioxidant supplements generally.
“There’s basically no research evidence at all that they provide a health benefit in terms of cancer,” Mann says.
“In fact there’s very good evidence that the taking of oral antioxidants can, in fact, increase cancer risk in some people — there have been long-term studies on this.
What that data suggests is that, when you take oral antioxidants you are, to some extent, protecting your own cells or supporting the levels of your natural antioxidants, but if you’ve got a cancer on board or cancer cells on board then you’re also protecting those cells — that’s quite good research evidence that that happens.”
Additionally, he says that the logic behind using antioxidants as protection doesn’t add up.
“Basically the damage that the sun does to our skin cells is partly caused by the production of what’s caused reactive oxygen species — that’s part of what the inflammation damage is in sunburn — but in fact the DNA damage, the damage to DNA that is a very important part of what produces skin cancer doesn’t rely on oxygen mechanisms necessarily at all, so there’s not even a particularly good theoretical reason for why [you would use these supplements]”.
What about anecdotal evidence that people who use such supplements as UVO are seeing a reduction in sunburn?
“One of the things I saw on one of these websites was somebody who says they seemed to be getting less sunburn while they’re taking supplements but even if that were true, that isn’t necessarily changing their risk of skin cancer at all,” Mann explains.
“What we know is that people who get more sunburns have more risk of skin cancer but it isn’t necessarily the sun burn that actually causes skin cancer, it’s just that the people who get the sun burn are the people who have the most sensitive skin so it doesn’t even all hang together as a logical story, even though it’s very easy to market it as a logical story.”
UVO’s cute tagline is to “practice safe sun”. Mann says there is only one sure-fire way to “practice safe sun”.
“The way we know you can protect your skin from the sun is to use barriers — in other words to use sun screens of different kinds [not just sun creams, but hats, clothing and shelter] — we know that this keeps the sun out of your skin and that reduces your chance of getting skin cancer.”
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