I have been testing an extremely intriguing product called Heliocare that provides sun protection in an oral supplement. And to cut to the car chase, I think it might work. Now, I should point out that Heliocare does not purport to be a sunscreen and only promises to “preserve the skin’s ability to protect against sun-related effects and aging.” My personal experience is that it does seem to reduce my skin’s propensity to sunburn.

So what is Heliocare (60 capsules/$29.99) and how does it work? The active ingredient is an antioxidant extract called calaguala leaf (polypodium leucotomos). I first came across this American fern in 2009 and in a post on sunscreen ingredients derived from plants noted that it looked promising.

I know of only one clinical trial, conducted in 2004 and it was small. But it suggests that polypodium leucotomos can significantly reduce sunburn severity, may help prevent skin aging and decrease the risk of cancer from UV radiation. In a test on nine people with oral administration of PL, there were less sunburn cells and a trend toward Langerhans cell preservation was seen. The researchers concluded that it gave “significant protection of skin against UV radiation.”

A couple of years later, the same research team declared that the antioxidant capabilities of polypodium leucotomos was provided by ferulic and caffeic acids. The ferulic acid may also be responsible for the sun-protection qualities. A Duke University study found ferulic acid particularly good for preventing sun damage, and studies elsewhere have demonstrated that exposure to ultraviolet light actually increases its antioxidant power.

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I have taken one Heliocare capsule daily in the morning for 60 days. The indications advise that “when prolonged sun exposure is anticipated, take one capsule one half hour before exposure to sunlight and a second capsule two to three hours later.” I have not taken this extra step. Although Heliocare is careful not to position itself as a sunscreen substitute, I have been deliberately a little sloppier about my use of conventional sun protectors in order to see how my skin (fair and freckly) would fare.

My arms have a definite hint of summer, but my face and neck are about the same as they were when by trial started. I do have redness on my décolleté from an afternoon at a friend’s outdoor pool (perhaps avoided if I had taken those extra Heliocare capsules?). Overall, I am pretty sure that Heliocare has been helpful at protecting my skin this summer.

In general, I am not much of a pill popper and (although I take vitamin D supplements) have been persuaded by science that dietary supplements are mostly a waste of time. Yet my experience with Heliocare has been positive. Perhaps it is wishful thinking as I am not a fan of sunscreen, but either way I will buy myself a replacement bottle.