You may have heard that certain supplements can help protect you from sun damage. But do they really work, and do you still need to apply sunscreen? Here, dermatologists break it down for us.

By Arielle Franklin
Updated April 30, 2018
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Before getting into the nitty gritty, let us first address the question you all came here to ask: Do you still need to apply sunscreen if you’re taking an oral antioxidant to protect against sun damage? The answer is a resounding Y-E-S, experts say. "It’s not supposed to replace your sunscreen," explains Rachel Nazarian, MD, a New York City dermatologist at Schweiger Dermatology Group. “It’s supposed to supplement it.” In other words, don’t expect to grow skin of steel after popping one of these capsules—you still need to slather on topical SPF protection every 80 minutes and after going in the water.

So, then why take these supplements at all? The experts we spoke to explained that skin-threatening damage doesn't just occur when you’re lying on the beach in Mexico.

"Free radicals"—chemical particles linked to cancer and other diseases—"come from more than just the sun," says Mona Gohara, MD, associate clinical professor of dermatology at Yale School of Medicine. And yes, even on cloudy days spent indoors, you are still at risk.

To protect skin from within, Dr. Gohara recommends an oral antioxidant that contains fern extract (also known as polypodium leucotomos), which helps scavenge out these free radicals. "It not only fortifies your skin—the body’s largest organ—but also the other organs in your body that can benefit from antioxidant protection," she says.

Other skin-damaging culprits include cigarette smoke, pollution, infrared rays, and blue light from computers, according to Whitney Bowe, MD, New York City dermatologist and author of The Beauty of Dirty Skin. "Sunscreen doesn't filter out the free radicals from all of these other sources," she says. And beyond being dangerous to your overall health, free radials also contribute to premature aging and hyperpigmentation. Blech. "I love topical serums, but you also have to protect your skin from the inside out," Dr. Bowe explains.

You've probably heard of Heliocare ($30 for 60 capsules; amazon.com or walgreens.com), which has been around for over 20 years and is often recommended by dermatologists. Within the past few years, though, other brands have developed similar supplements, such as Sunsafe Rx Dietary Supplements ($50 for 60 capsules; amazon.com) and HUM Nutrition Turn Back Time Anti-Aging Supplement ($40 for 60 capsules; sephora.com).

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While an antioxidant supplement can benefit everyone, regardless of skin type or age, it’s especially important for those with sun allergies, vitiligo, and melasma, says Dr. Nazarian. "It makes them less sensitive to UV light," she explains. And unlike a topical sunscreen, an oral supplement keeps working around the clock and doesn't wash off.