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Your skin vs. the sun: A sunscreen pill?


2 Star

Your skin vs. the sun: A sunscreen pill?

Our Review Summary

This story flunks most of our criteria, both in letter and spirit. It outright recommends a product for prevention without mentioning evidence. The reason for recommending the product is lost in a muddy stream of consciousness. See if you can follow the logic, which we’ve tried to piece together:
1) Sunscreens with vitamin A may cause cancer. Although the evidence is only in mice. And not all sunscreens have vitamin A.
2) There’s a new-ish pill that might be an alternative.
3) If you take the pill, you still need to use sunscreen.
4) Sunscreen used alone protects the skin fine.
5) But there’s no reason not to try the pill (plus sunscreen).
That’s right, the story actually concludes: “There’s no reason not to take a flyer on Fernblock—actress Reese Witherspoon gives it a hearty endorsement—but keep slathering up, too.” Did we seriously just read that?


Why This Matters

The public seems to need continued reminders about the importance of sunscreen and preventing burns. This story, unfortunately, muddies the message.


Does the story adequately discuss the costs of the intervention?

Not Satisfactory

 The costs of Fernblock are not discussed. For all we know, it might be free. As the story says, "There’s no reason" not to try it.

Does the story adequately quantify the benefits of the treatment/test/product/procedure?

Not Satisfactory

There is no attempt to present any quantification of the benefits of Fernblock for preventing burns or, by extension, cancers and photo-aging.

Does the story adequately explain/quantify the harms of the intervention?

Not Satisfactory

No potential harms of Fernblock are mentioned. If the long-term safety is unknown, an acknowledgement of that or the potential harms of taking any herbal supplement would have sufficed.

Does the story seem to grasp the quality of the evidence?

Not Satisfactory

Mentioning any evidence for this pill’s efficacy would have been a good start. The only support given is a statement that those dermatologists who have used it “think it offers a measure of protection.” Has it ever been studied? And how much protection is a measure of protection? And compared to what? Also, the story does provide additional context when talking about Vitamin A, by saying the evidence in that case was based on studies in mice. This makes it harder to understand why information about human, rodent any other evidence for Fernblock was left out.

Does the story commit disease-mongering?


The article does not hype or monger skin cancer or skin aging from sun rays.

Does the story use independent sources and identify conflicts of interest?

Not Satisfactory

The sources independent from Fernblock’s manufacturer and Reese Witherspoon are anonymous. There are vague references to the opinions of “most” dermatologists and to those dermatologists “who have experience with Fernblock.” These generalizations are unverifiable, and thus of uncertain accuracy. Making a sweeping statement does not substitute for evidence or flesh-and-blood sources. A comment about this product from a dermatologist or even someone versed in herbal medicine would have given helpful context. There was also a link to an Environmental Working Group page about sunscreen, but we don’t see information about sun pills, the point of this story.

Does the story compare the new approach with existing alternatives?

Not Satisfactory

The story tells us that Fernblock is an alternative to sunscreens (with vitamin A). But it also says Fernblock should be taken with sunscreen. So it is unclear what Fernblock’s role is and how it would compare to any real alternative. How does it compare to sunscreen alone, to sitting under an umbrella or to staying indoors entirely?

Does the story establish the availability of the treatment/test/product/procedure?


 It seems clear that the product is available and being actively promoted.

Does the story establish the true novelty of the approach?

Not Satisfactory

Terribly vague. There’s nothing in this article to allow readers to assess whether this is novel. First, what is it? Fernblock is a “relatively new product” and a “natural fern extract used by indigenous peoples.” What people and where? Does it have a chemical name, or ingredients, besides the brand name?  Second, what does “relatively new” mean? How long has it been out? The only answer we are provided is: Long enough for Reese Witherspoon to throw her name behind it. A simple search shows that is scientific literature on the product dating back years. Jumbling the vitamin A story with the Fernblock one conflates the possible roles of this product. The article explicitly positions Fernblock as an alternative to sunscreens with vitamin A. But Fernblock, apparently, does not replace sunscreen, which even the manufacturer says needs to be used in combination with Fernblock. So how is Fernblock an alternative to sunscreen without vitamin A — or to any sunscreen?

Does the story appear to rely solely or largely on a news release?

Not Applicable

It does not seem to be covering any specific news release.

Total Score: 2 of 9 Satisfactory


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