Ask the Doctors

Dear Doctor: My husband and I are terrible at remembering to wear sunscreen. I don't like how it feels, and he just plain forgets. I recently saw an ad for sunscreen pills. Could they be an option?

Dear Reader: We hate to be the bearers of bad news, but no, sunscreen pills don't work. They have been marketed as dietary supplements that will allow your skin to (magically, it would have to be) ward off sunburn, reduce sun-related aging and even shield you from skin cancer. To paraphrase the Food and Drug Administration, there's no such thing as a sunscreen pill. The risks posed by unprotected sun exposure are serious enough that the FDA put out a statement in May debunking the claims of sunscreen pill manufacturers. It also sent out warning letters demanding that the companies hawking these pills stop their false advertising, which it said violates federal law. The specific companies mentioned in the FDA's announcement are Advanced Skin Brightening Formula, Sunsafe Rx, Solaricare and Sunergetic.

You're right to be concerned that you and your husband have been lax in the sunscreen department. From the instant the sun rises to the moment it sets, amid the spectrum of light that it emits is ultraviolet radiation. The wavelengths of UV rays are shorter than those of visible light, which makes them invisible to the naked eye. But the potential damage they can cause to unprotected skin is considerable.

UV radiation is broken down into UVA, UVB and UVC rays. (We don't hear much about UVC, the shortest of the three, because it gets absorbed by the Earth's ozone layer.) But UVA rays, which are the longest of the three and account for 95 percent of the UV radiation that reaches us on Earth, and UVB rays, which are slightly shorter, do a real number on our skin. UVA, in addition to causing the physiological changes that we call a suntan, penetrates the deepest. It plays a big role in premature aging, and more recent research shows that it plays a part in skin cancers as well. The shorter UVB rays give us sunburns and play a significant role in a range of skin cancers. Both types of UV rays can damage the skin's cellular DNA and thus give rise to genetic mutations that can lead to cancer.

All of this bad news about UV rays would be far more alarming if it weren't for the existence of sunscreens. Legitimate sunscreens are all applied topically. Each contains a mix of certain types of organic and/or inorganic chemicals, which either deflect, reflect, scatter or absorb the UV rays. All types of sunscreens need to be reapplied throughout the day because they either wear off through contact or perspiration, or, if they're absorbing the UV rays, their chemical bonds break down. The array of legitimate sunscreen products is vast.

We think that if you're willing to experiment, you'll find one you don't hate. Just be sure to choose a full-spectrum product that absorbs both UVA and UVB rays and choose an SPF of at least 30. Use sunscreen liberally and reapply often.

(Send your questions to askthedoctors@mednet.ucla.edu, or write: Ask the Doctors, c/o Media Relations, UCLA Health, 924 Westwood Blvd., Suite 350, Los Angeles, CA, 90095. Owing to the volume of mail, personal replies cannot be provided.)

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