Can Nutritional Supplements Prevent Skin Cancer?

Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the United States. Summer’s end is the time to get that annual skin cancer check.  According to the current estimates, one in five Americans will develop skin cancer during their lifetime.  Research estimates that non-melanoma skin cancer, including basal cell carcinoma (BCC) and squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) affects more than 3 million Americans a year with the overall incidence of SCC having increased 263% between 1976-1984 and 2000-2010.


Risk Factors

Several risk factors for the development of skin cancer have been identified.  Exposure to natural and artificial UV light is a risk factor for all types of skin cancer. Additionally, increasing intermittent sun exposure in childhood and over one’s lifetime is associated with an increased risk of SCC, BCC, and melanoma, a potentially deadly form of skin cancer.

Even a single blistering sunburn during childhood or adolescence can nearly double a person’s chance of developing melanoma. Experiencing five or more blistering sunburns between ages 15 and 20 increases one’s melanoma risk by 80% and SCC/BCC risk by 68%.

Risk factors for all types of skin cancer include: blonde or red hair, skin that does not tan but burns easily, history of excessive sun exposure (including blistering sunburns and tanning bed use), a compromised immune system, and a history of prior skin cancer.


Prevention and Detection

Exposure to UV light is the most preventable risk factor for all skin cancers.  The American Academy of Dermatology encourages everyone to stay out of indoor tanning beds and protect their skin from the sun’s harmful UV rays by seeking shade, wearing protective clothing, and using a broad-spectrum, water-resistant sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher.

In addition to strict sun protection, dietary supplements have been shown to offer chemoprotective benefits.



A recent study, published in JAMA on July 31, 2019 highlighted the role of vitamin A derivatives, (commonly referred to as retinoids) as chemopreventive agents against SCC.

Vitamin A derived retinoids (retinol, retinal, and retinoic acid) can be divided into 2 groups depending on their source (animal vs. plant). Vitamin A derived from animal-based foods is called retinol, a yellow, fat-soluble compound that is the precursor of the most active form of vitamin A (retinoic acid). The form of vitamin A found in fruits and vegetables is called provitamin A carotenoid, which includes beta carotene, alpha carotene, and beta cryptoxanthin and can be converted into retinol in the body.

In the study, a total of 3,978 SCC cases in 75,170 women in the Nurses’ Health Study and 48 400 men in the Health Professionals Follow-up Study were documented.

The study found that higher intake of total vitamin A, retinol, and several carotenoids, was associated with a decreased risk of SCC.

It is worth noting that the population studied had normal intake of vitamin A. The US Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) of vitamin A is 3000 IU in the form of retinol for adult men and 2331 IU for adult women. The median intake of total vitamin A was higher than the RDA in studied population with large proportions of vitamin A contributed by food, especially carotenoids from vegetables.

Although high vitamin A intake prove to be effective in chemoprevention of SCC, high intake of vitamin A, especially the synthetic vitamin A (from animal foods, fortified foods, and dietary supplements), may have some adverse health effects, such as potentially increased risk of osteoporosis and hip fracture. More research is needed to understand the appropriate level of vitamin A intake for maximum health benefits. Therefore, risks and benefits of higher vitamin A intake should be considered individually.



The vitamin B3, nicotinamide supplementation of 500 mg twice daily in 386 patients aged 30 to 91 years who had high risk for skin cancer with more than 2 non-melanoma skin cancers showed a decrease in the rate of new SCCs and BCCs by 23% after one year of supplementation.  Nicotinamide also reduced the risk for developing actinic keratoses, a precursor to non-melanoma skin cancers.



Heliocare, a dietary supplement derived from Polypodium leucotomos fern is a powerful and clinically proven antioxidant properties protecting from the harmful effects of free radicals implicated in skin aging and possibly development of skin cancers.  Studies of Heliocare as chemopreventive agents are required.

The role of nutrition in prevention and treatment of skin cancers is a subject of intense study.  Early epidemiological studies confirm the benefits of naturally derived vitamin A derivatives and nicotinamide in the prevention of skin cancer, especially in people with extensive sun damage and previous history of skin cancer.  Nonetheless, the risks of such supplementation must be carefully weighed against the possible risks and side effects.


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