Katie Wang DO, Paul M. Graham DO
As summer heat affects much of the country in full force, the importance of sunscreen and proper sun-protective behaviors are clear. However, is there more than just applying sunscreen that we can do to shield our skin from the sun? In recent years, the oral supplementation of a plant-derived antioxidant has been suggested as another way to potentially protect our skin from sun damage and combat the premature aging.
Polypodium leucotomos extract (PLE) is derived from a fern that is part of the Polypodiaceae family, native to Central and South America. Traditionally, the plant was used by healers for various skin conditions such as psoriasis and atopic dermatitis. This plant was once confined to underwater habitats – that is, until it developed a unique way to neutralize the damaging effects of the sun’s ultraviolet radiation (UV). This mechanism of UV repair has now brought PLE into the medical spotlight. Biochemically, PLE phenols contain hydroxyl (-OH) groups that can readily donate an electron to a reactive oxygen species (ROS). These free radicals can damage the skin. To understand how PLE works to protect the skin, we first need to take a closer look at the cellular mechanism of sun damage.
Sunlight contains ultraviolet (or UV) light. The UV light we are exposed to is predominantly comprised of UVA and UVB rays. These UV rays induce changes in the skin that promote premature aging and skin cancer development. While UVB makes up a smaller percentage of the total UV radiation (5%) we are exposed to, it causes more skin cancers. UVA makes up the remaining 95% of natural light on Earth, but penetrates skin more deeply and plays a larger role in premature skin aging. On a molecular level, UV radiation promotes skin cancer by inducing reactive oxygen species (ROS) production (free radicals) and causing direct DNA damage. The presence of ROS leads to destabilization of other skin molecules, shortening of skin cell telomeres, mitochondrial damage, and structural changes to cell membranes and proteins. Because PLE contains molecular components that can neutralize ROS within the skin, it is hypothesized that PLE can prevent many of these mechanisms of UV-induced sun damage.
Clinical studies looking at PLE have demonstrated protection against UV-induced skin damage, reduction in the incidence of sunburn, and decreased depletion of skin-protective immune cells (Langerhans cells). PLE has been marketed in Europe since the early 2000s in both topical and oral forms, but has been gaining popularity in the United States over the past decade. PLE is currently available over-the-counter (OTC) at many pharmacies across the country under the brand name Heliocare. In addition to its use by the general public as an oral supplement, it has also been used as an adjuvant therapy to protect against the side effects of psoralens (UV light sensitizers) and UVA light therapy (PUVA) in those being treated for psoriasis.
Heliocare is a once-daily oral dietary supplement (240mg) that is rapidly absorbed in the digestive tract. Because it is taken internally rather than applied to the skin like sunscreen, there is no risk of the compound being removed by environmental elements. Once ingested, Heliocare is hypothesized to provide approximately two hours of sun-protection from the development of skin redness (sunburn). It also imparts some longer-lasting effects, like ability to bind damaging UV-induced molecules.
A key pharmacologic advantage of PLE is that it has been shown to have negligible toxicity even at high dosages. Mild stomach upset is the most common reported side effect with its use.
How to use Heliocare or oral PLE?
One study published by González et al reported that PLE has an SPF of approximately 3, indicating that this supplement must be used in combination with a topical sunscreen (SPF 30+). The main advantage of this supplement is the ability to scavenge cell-damaging molecules created by UV radiation, further decreasing the effects of aging and skin cancer development. While experts agree that PLE cannot replace the value of physical sunblocks and sunscreens, it is a promising addition to our sun-protection armamentarium.
Remember, this supplement should be used in conjunction with topical sunscreen to provide the best sun protection. Additional sun-protective practices, such as sun-protective clothing, avoidance of the sun during peak UV hours (10am-4pm), and shade-seeking behavior should be implemented. Why not add this natural supplement to your daily skin-care regimen? It may help significantly reduce future damage caused by the sun!
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1. Mechanisms of Photoaging and Cutaneous Photocarcinogenesis, and Photoprotective Strategies with Phytochemicals – http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4665475/
2. Fernblock (Polypodium leucotomos Extract): Molecular Mechanisms and Pleiotropic Effects in Light-Related Skin Conditions, Photoaging and Skin Cancers, a Review. -http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27367679
3. González S, Pathak MA, Cuevas J, Villarrubia VG, & Fitzpatrick TB (1997). Topical or oral administration with an extract of Polypodium leucotomos prevents acute sunburn and psoralen-induced phototoxic reactions as well as depletion of Langerhans cells in human skin. Photodermatology, Photoimmunology & Photomedicine, 13 (1-2), 50-60
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