In The Future, Eating A Gummy Could Protect You From The Sun

“ ... what we're trying to do here is create new habits around sun protection ... "

Many adults grew up taking gummy vitamins, and while we're used to them providing nutrients like calcium and iron, you probably never thought you could eat a gummy to protect your skin from the sun's harmful rays. While that might sound like something you'd accidentally ingest in Alice's Wonderland, it's real — and it's here. 

Sundots are the "world's first gummy for sun protection." The idea for the product, which has yet to be clinically tested, came from the company's Chief Scientific Officer Dr. Emilia Javorsky, MD MPH and Chief Executive Officer Chris Tolles, and originated in Javorsky's work in dermatology research at Harvard Medical School. "Up until that time, I didn't really think a lot about sun protection. I was someone who barely tanned, so skin cancer wasn't something that was super pressing on my radar," she told A Plus.  "And then it was really through my exposure in the derm research community that I saw just how important sun protection was from a skin cancer point of view ... but also from an aging point of view." 

Javorsky, like many of us, had "no idea" that 80-90 percent of preventable aging is due to everyday sun exposure. But the more she learned about sun protection, the more she became interested in alternate sun protection strategies compared to the "traditional" ones of sunscreen, hats, UPF clothing. 

Javorsky dug into more than 30 years of scientific literature, and 19 human studies with more than 400 participants, available on polypodium leucotomos, a fern extract that helps provide sun protection from within when taken orally as a supplement. Most recently, a 2017 study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology examined the effect of polypodium on patients' skin cells after exposure to UV radiation and found 76 percent fewer new sunburned cells in those who took polypodium. 

That said, the Sundots' product itself hasn't been tested in any clinical studies, which another dermatologist, Joshua Zeichner, MD, told Refinery29 was disconcerting. "Polypodium leucomotos extract has been shown to give some protection against UVA rays in the setting of sun allergies, but the effectiveness of the product depends on the formulation," he told the publication. "One brand containing the ingredient may be very different than another brand. I would want to see proven efficacy in clinical trials."

Still, Javorsky looked beyond the data itself and investigated into the extract's practical, everyday uses. In doing so, she learned that polypodium is used "pretty widely" in Europe, especially in Spain. Soon after, she discussed the plant extract with her dermatologist colleagues and others in the dermatological research community, many of whom used polypodium leucotomos themselves. "So that was basically when I started incorporating it into my daily routine," she said, as a supplement to her everyday sunscreen use and hat wearing. 

Courtesy of Sundots

Fast forward to 2017, and Dr. Javorsky met her future Sundots co-founder Tolles, who'd spent two years working with academic researchers in the Boston area on consumer product health.  

The duo purposefully chose to make a sun protection gummy, rather than a pill, so that consumers would view it as a "friendly" and "accessible" product they can actually look forward to taking every day. "A gummy can deliver the ingredient the same way that a pill does. There's no difference in efficacy from a chemical perspective," Tolles told A Plus. "But what we're trying to do here is create new habits around sun protection, and there's good evidence that gummies are taken more regularly." 

Tolles and Javorsky note UV radiation is a daily threat, so the solution must be just as pervasive to be effective. "The foundation of protecting ourselves against the sun is wearing sunscreen every day, and we're really strong advocates for that," Javorsky said. "We also hope that ... in making a gummy fun and tasty, it also helps to remind you that sun protection is a daily thing." 

Courtesy of Sundots
Courtesy of Sundots

While Javorsky and Tolles are "very, very strong advocates" for daily sunscreen use, they're quick to point out the flaws in its effectiveness. It's great when someone wears sunscreen or a moisturizer with SPF on every day, but Javorsky said, "We don't usually put enough on to achieve that SPF that's listed on the bottle, and then we don't tend to reapply it." According to her, the recommended timeframe to reapply is every two hours — which it's probably safe to say the vast majority of people don't do outside of the beach. 

To help people avoid skin cancer, premature aging, Sundots' internal approach strengthens skin cells' ability to resist UV damage. "And so, what we are advocating for is the more layers of protection you have, the more you're protected … This is an additional, foundational layer of protection in your toolkit, but it's by no means a substitute for sunscreen," Javorsky said.

"The best sun protection always is gonna come from a combination of things," Tolles affirmed. "And that's why we're really passionate because Sundots is a great complement to people's existing expectations of what sun protection means."

Courtesy of Sundots
Courtesy of Sundots

This is especially true as Consumer Reports published data in 2017 comparing multiple sunscreens' SPF claims against what SPF levels were actually demonstrated in independent lab testing. "For the fifth year in a row, many sunscreens failed to provide an adequate level of protection in our tests," Trisha Calvo, Deputy Editor of Health and Food for Consumer Reports, said in the article. Upon testing 58 lotions, sprays, and sticks Consumer Reports found that 20 sunscreens tested at less than half their labeled SPF number. 

"It's really scary to realize that even if I do apply it exactly the way I'm supposed to — which we also know we don't — there's a meaningful number of products out there that could just not be delivering the thing that they're claiming to," Tolles said in reference to the Consumer Reports data. "... The sad truth is that unless your market is requiring better solutions, big companies just don't provide them ... Nobody's been bothering them to say we need better products, so unsurprisingly, it's been 30 years with pretty modest improvements." 

"I think, over the years, there have been attempts to improve how sunscreen is formulated, making it longer lasting, trying to make it waterproof, but in terms of fundamental changes or really thinking about awareness about a lot of the issues that we're talking about, I think there's been a lot of public health messaging work that needs to be done," Javorsky added.

Courtesy of Sundots
Courtesy of Sundots

That's why they want to use Sundots to reframe the concept of sun protection as a tangible, "holistic" part of everyone's daily routine. "The data out there pretty much knows that it's not just the sun you get at the beach, those couple sunny days a year, that's contributing to your aging and skin cancer risk. It's really the cumulative sun over your lifetime," Javorsky said. She and Tolles aim to overcome this obstacle by educating the public that sun protection doesn't require a "this or that" approach, but rather a "this and that... and this" one.

"The practices that we do every day that we think are protecting us, do obviously offer some protection but not the complete protection that you may think that they do," Javorsky said. "... People see sun protection as an 'or' and not an 'and' problem ... So I think that that's part of the reason that polypodium hasn't taken off in the U.S. the way it has in other places, because it's not a replacement for sunscreen and sunscreen is still kind of the gold standard." 

With all this mind, Javorsky and Tolles set out with the specific goal of not becoming a gummy company. "Our vision is really to be able to offer a whole set of our [sun protection] products that are similarly novel, innovative, meet people where they're at," Tolles said, though he couldn't publicly disclose any information on other products. He was, however, proud to say the company is on schedule to complete their first shipment of Sundots to their Indiegogo supporters in June. "This year is really gonna be about continuing to get our message out," Tolles added. "Our Indiegogo campaign has been remarkably successful in terms of what we thought it could do."

While neither the CDC nor ADA don't currently list Sundots as an effective form of sun protection and the company's claims have yet to be approved by the FDA, that may be due to the $2.6 billion price tag often associated with FDA approval currently unattainable for the crowd-funded supplement, rather than a lack of product quality. Ultimately, Tolles and Javorsky encourage anyone interested in learning more about Sundots, especially if they're skeptical, to check out their website for additional information, consult their personal dermatologist, and contact the Sundots team directly. 

Cover image via Sundots  and  wavebreakmedia / Shutterstock 

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