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Sunscreen pill studied by researchers

(Republished with permission from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. This article originally ran in the Health & Fitness section on Monday, September 12, 2005)

Could a substance that gives carrots and tomatoes their color keep you from turning red in the sun?

Researchers at Washington University School of Medicine are convinced the possibility exists, so they're looking for volunteers to sign up for a "sunscreen vitamin" study.

The vitamin is zea-xanthin (pronounced ZEE-zan-thin). Like beta-carotene and lycopene, it's one of the many carotenoids or natural plant pigments found in fruits and vegetables.

Dr. Michael Heffernan, assistant professor of dermatology and director of the Dermatology Clinical Trials Unit at Washington University, wants to see whether it offers a sun protection factor similar to what you currently only find in a bottle of sunscreen.

Supplements of zeaxanthin apparently come with no significant side effects. Heffernan said it has an excellent safety profile and is well-tolerated in studies done in humans and animals.

In the zeaxanthin study, volunteer subjects are asked to take 30 milligrams of the substance once a day. Small patches of skin less than one square inch are then exposed to medical-grade sunlight to see if the supplement offers any sun protection over time.

One word of caution: don't try this at home. Heffernan says the study is still in a very early stage, and there's not enough data to say whether zeaxanthin really works, or at what dose. But he hopes one day this could help the millions of people who shun sunscreen or don't use enough.

Potential volunteers should be fair-skinned and prone to sunburn. For information, call 314-362-9853.

Kay Quinn is an anchorwoman and reporter at KSDK (Channel 5).

Copyright 2005 St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Inc.

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