If you read my blog before, you’ll know that I am a self-professed DIY skincare addict. I make DIY cosmetics for myself and for my family. I gift my friends with handmade products. And, I even sell them to my loyal clients. When it comes to skincare, for me it’s all about 100% natural and toxin-free.
So, naturally, when I started seeing pins and blog posts about homemade natural sunscreen I was intrigued. I started digging deeper into the subject to answer the question: do natural sunscreen alternatives offer enough protection from the harmful effects of the sun? Let’s see what I found out.
Why Do We Need Sunscreen?
The sun is super important to any living creatures on Earth, including us humans. Some exposure to direct sunlight without protection is crucial for our wellbeing both physical and mental. I discussed before the topic of depression and risk of cancers – other than skin cancer – related to too little exposure to the sun.
To reiterate, it is important to allow some rays to reach our bodies for such benefits as:
- vitamin D production,
- circadian rhythm regulation,
- positive outlook and depression prevention.
It is however also an undisputed fact that skin cancer is on the rise. It is the leading cause of cancer mortality in the USA, even though it is easily avoidable when using sufficient protection from too much sun.
What is Sunscreen?
Silly question. But not really. It is important to know what it is, as this will help us understand why it cannot be just anything we might think would offer protection.
Sunscreen is a substance that prevents the ultraviolet sun rays from reaching our skin. The sun emits three types of ultraviolet rays:
- UVA – because these rays penetrate deep into the lower levels of the epidermis, they can cause wrinkles, “sunspots,” and other types of photoaging. They cause immediate reddening and can contribute to skin cancer.
- UVB – these rays don’t penetrate very deep but can still cause delayed tanning and lead to photoaging. These rays are also the most responsible for the development of skin cancers.
- UVC – this type does not reach us because it is blocked by Earth’s atmosphere
UVA rays make UVB can both be harmful, so it is crucial to protect your skin from both.
All sunscreen products protect against UVB rays, the main cause of sunburn. But UVA rays also contribute to skin cancer and premature aging. Only products that pass a test can be labeled “broad spectrum.”American Cancer Society
Types of Sunscreen
Basically there are two types of sunscreen: chemical and mineral.
Chemical-based sunscreens absorb and change UV rays so that they don’t penetrate the skin and cause the damage that they would in the absence of the sunscreen.
Mineral sunscreens on the other hand provide a physical barrier on the skin. This is usually achieved by adding substances such as zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide whose particles form a barrier or block on the skin when applied (the white stuff).
Personally, I don’t like the white stuff. Here, I said it. However, after researching the difference between the chemical and mineral types of sunscreens, I am convinced to start not only tolerating it but rather loving it.
Issues with Chemical Sunscreen
The problem with chemical sunsreens is that the chemicals in them penetrate the skin and not all of them are harmless.
In recent FDA testing, all non-mineral sunscreen chemicals absorbed into the body and could be measured in blood after just a single use, and many sunscreen ingredients have been detected in breast milk and urine samples.Environmental Working Group
The majority of sunscreens feature one or a combination of following ingredients: oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate and octinoxate. According to studies, probably the most troubling of them is oxybenzone. What can it do?
- It is an endocrine disruptor (impacting thyroid function)
- According to EWG, it has an impact on sex hormones, especially in males (“weak estrogen, moderate anti-androgen”)
- it can alter birth weight in babies
- it can lead to skin allergies
If this is not convincing enough, the ingredients in chemical sunscreens also damage our oceans by causing a disruption of food chain and bleaching coral reefs.
Studies have identified UV filters such as oxybenzone, octocrylene, octinoxate, and ethylhexyl salicylate in almost all water sources around the world and have commented that these filters are not easily removed by common wastewater treatment plant techniques.Review of Environmental Effects of Oxybenzone and Other Sunscreen Active Ingredients.
Given such high dermatological and environmental toxicity, it’s little wonder that people are looking for alternatives.
Natural Sunscreen Alternatives
People, including myself, have tried to make homemade natural sunscreen out of substances that supposedly have naturally-occurring sun protection in them.
The most popular DIY sunscreen circulating on the web involves coconut oil. Some sources claim – without citing scientific evidence – that coconut oil offers somewhere around 5-10 SPF and so is a great alternative to commercial sunscreens.
However, if you actually research the topic, the idea of a natural sunscreen with coconut oil can quickly be disproven as a bunch of bs. It is true that extra virgin coconut oil is soothing to the skin and has anti-inflammatory and skin-protective properties but there is no evidence that it has any built-in SPF.
Another popular recipe that circulates the web is a Shea butter based sunscreen. Here again, claims are made that it carries the SPF of 6-10. But where is the evidence? I searched and searched and there has not been any clinical studies to substantiate this claim.
Sure, Shea butter has amazing skin protective and moisturizing properties. It might even add to the efficacy of an actual sunscreen. But, using it as a basis for a homemade natural sunscreen and relying on it to protect your skin might be a step too far.
Raspberry Seed Oil
There have been claims that this oil offers the whooping SPF of 50! Wouldn’t it be nice? A healthy oil, smelling nice, leaving no white residue, and it offering almost complete UV blocking. Unfortunately, there is no research to back up this claim. It’s true that raspberry seed oil is very rich in vitamins A and C, polyphenols, and tocopherols (forms of vitamin E) which makes it great for skin health. But in terms of sun protection, it’s still an unfulfilled wish.
Carrot Seed Oil
Often included in recipes for a natural sunscreen, the carrot seed oil is supposed to have SPF of 30-40. Yet, it is yet another example of wishful thinking.
First of all, there seems to be a lot of confusion about whether we are talking about carrot seed oil as a carrier oil or the essential oil of carrot seed. Secondly, there is no proof that either would offer meaningful sun protection. According to Robert Tisserand of the Tisserand Institute “carrot seed FATTY oil may be very slightly sun-protective, but it has no known SPF. And, there are no essential oils that meaningfully filter UV rays.”
Homemade Natural Sunscreen?
I would say no. I have to admit, I tried to make one. I mixed fractionated coconut oil, raspberry seed oil, and carrot seed essential oil. Result? It is a nice, moisturizing, and skin-soothing body oil. However, I did get a burn on my shoulders after being outside for about one hour with this oil mixture on.
I never yet tried making one with the zinc oxide, but frankly, after conducting the research on all the false claims about purported sun protective power of these natural ingredients, I doubt I ever will. Another reason why is that I actually found a holy grail of sunscreens which I trust to use on myself and my family.
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What I am Using?
I discovered this sunscreen by accident. My kid was going to a stay-away camp last summer and I packed his sunscreen for the week into his luggage. When we were seeing him off, it took a long time for the buses to arrive.
The kids started playing catch and ball, while we the parents were chatting and waiting. It was hot and sunny, July in California. I asked another parent to let me have some of her sunscreen so I could protect my boy and myself.
It was a mineral sunscreen by Beauty by Earth, SPF 25. I love it so much, I want to shout from the rooftops about how great it is (I even became their affiliate).
Let me tell you, it is a game-changer! Even though it is a mineral sunscreen it goes on almost clear. And the ingredients in it are stellar! Here are just a few:
- Organic Aloe Juice,
- Organic Coconut Oil,
- Organic Shea Butter,
- Organic Pomegranate Extract,
- Organic Calendula Flower Extract,
- Organic Green Tea Extract,
- and other botanical extracts.
- The active ingredient is Zinc Oxide (Non-nano which is important because it won’t penetrate into the skin) at 14%.
They also carry a Facial Sunscreen with SPF 20, and Tinted Facial Sunscreen SPF 20 in three shades to match your complexion. All are non-chemical, so they won’t cause you any harm and won’t do any damage to the environment. They have only wholesome natural ingredients, are 100% organic, and always made without toxins such as sulfates, parabens, phthalates, triclosan, or petroleum.
Which Sunscreen to Choose?
This is where the concept of SPF is crucial. The number following SPF (SPF 15 or SPF 30) informs you how long it would take for your skin to burn with the sunscreen on as opposed to without it.
For example, if your skin would start reddening in about 10 minutes (this will depend on the skin color and sensitivity), with SPF 30, it would theoretically take 30 times as long. I would not count on 300 minutes (5 hours) protection from one application. Sunscreen rubs off, gets diluted with sweat, and of course water. To avoid burning, it makes sense to reapply every couple of hours or so.
To remain protected when outdoors, reapply sunscreen every two hours, or immediately after swimming or sweating.American Academy of Dermatology
The Bottom Line on DIY Sunscreen
To answer the question set at the outset: Will natural sunscreen alternatives protect your skin form photoaging and skin cancer? My definite answer is no.
In my opinion, it might be ok to use a DIY sunscreen for a short time in the fall or in wintertime when the sun is less likely to burn the skin. In the summer and for prolonged exposure, if you’re out in the sun between 11 am and 3 pm, a mineral sunscreen with at least SPF 20 is a must.
Go outdoors! Get some sun early morning and late afternoon. Use a good mineral, broad-spectrum sunscreen for prolonged exposure or in hours between 10 am -3 pm. Be well, be safe!