Cautions about homemade sunscreen

I’ve written about sunscreen on this blog. A lot. Including my own homemade recipes. But this summer I have seen a lot of cautions in the news about using homemade sunscreen. I wanted to make sure that you, my readers, saw those cautions as well.

cautions about homemade sunscreen title over photo of tow jars of homemade sunscreen.

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Why are homemade sunscreens dangerous?

From the articles I have read, the biggest issue with homemade sunscreen is claims about SPF, or Sun Protection Factor. The only way to actually know the SPF is by testing. In reality, according to this CNN article, this failure to meet SPF claims is actually an issue with store bought sunscreens, too. But even moreso with homemade sunscreens, where people are really just guessing what the SPF will be.

It sounds like several recipes out here on the internet make claims about their homemade sunscreens having certain SPFs. This can lead the users into a false sense of security that they have different (more) sun protection than they actually have. Even if a homemade recipe has the same active ingredient in the same amount (percentage by weight, as I do in my recipes) as a store-bought sunscreen, that active ingredient may not be evenly dispersed throughout the whole homemade sunscreen, so each application of the sunscreen may not contain the anticipated SPF.

Other articles mention the benefits of (synthetic) chemical sunscreens because they can’t be washed off the surface of the skin like a physical barrier active ingredient sunscreen – zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. I still personally choose to avoid synthetic chemicals due to my personal sensitivities and environmental concerns, but I understand the reasons some doctors recommend them. One article pointed out that homemade sunscreen may contain uncommon ingredients that people are not used to, and may cause allergic reactions. References: Penn State News, Huffington Post, PBS.

Why did I make my own sunscreens if they are dangerous?

First, when I started making my own sunscreen, I didn’t realize these potential risks. Due to my skin sensitivities and difficulty of finding natural sunscreens even as recently as 2015, I was making my own sunscreen and body products before it was as common as it is today in 2019.

homemade natural sunscreen finished product
one of my homemade sunscreens

Second, I am careful. I do not blindly trust on the SPF that I have guessed in my sunscreens (nor do I blindly trust the SPF rating on sunscreens I buy, for that matter). In my first homemade sunscreen post I just put an estimated SPF in one of the paragraphs towards the end of the post, and in the second homemade sunscreen post I didn’t even bother estimating. I am not trying to guarantee myself or anyone else that these sunscreens will meet a certain SPF. I was just seeking to give options other than the sunscreens with “bad” ingredients: oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate, octinoxate, or para-aminobenzoic acid (PABA) when it could be tough to find sunscreens without these ingredients in stores.

Additionally, even when I was using my homemade sunscreens, I was never relying on just the sunscreen to protect my skin from the sun. I wear sun glasses pretty much all the time. I am always layering on SPF clothing (I love my Columbia button downs!) and avoid being out in the sun, or at least seek out shade when I need to be outside, during the mid-day hours when the sun is most intense, from about 10 in the morning until 2 in the afternoon. If I’m going to be outside long, I often wear a hat to protect my scalp, shade my face, and maybe shade my ears and neck, too.

Columbia sun shirts
Some of my button down sun protection shirts. I live in these in the summer.

Do I still use homemade sunscreen?

Occasionally. Today there are so many options to purchase natural sunscreens that I personally have no need to make my own sunscreen. And honestly, I have not been able to create a formula that is even close to as smooth and nice feeling while offering as good sun protection as some of the products that can be purchased in stores today. Back in June I wrote about my favorite sunscreen, and it is the one I use almost exclusively, and have used Goddess Garden brand almost exclusively for over a year.

bottle of 3.4 oz and 6 oz Goddess Garden Baby SPF 50 Sunscreen

I do, however, still occasionally use my light coconut oil-zinc oxide sunscreen. I typically just use coconut oil as a moisturizer, so when I want a little sun protection and don’t expect to be sweating, swimming, or wiping off the sunscreen, such as in the winter (when I will only be outside for 10 minutes on my commute), I use this sunscreen instead of plain coconut oil.

My verdict on sunscreen

I take my health very seriously. I use sunscreen and other sun-protection products when I go out in the sun. Usually I use a SPF 50 sunscreen for added protection, but I mentally treat it like an SPF 30 sunscreen, knowing that I probably did not apply perfectly, that it might have separated a little, or that it just might not have quite been as high as advertised. For myself, I plan to primarily continue using my favorite Goddess Garden sunscreen, with the occasional use of my light coconut oil-zinc oxide homemade sunscreen on myself only. For my family, and my recommendation if anyone asks, would be to buy and use a sunscreen from a trustworthy manufacturer.

Additional information about sunscreen

Since I have been educating myself about homemade sunscreens, I realized that I needed to educate myself more about sunscreens in general. I had seen this guide from the Environmental Working Group in the past, and decided to read it in detail this summer.

The EWG guide isn’t targeting homemade sunscreens specifically, but goes into extensive detail about sunscreens in the US and Europe. The article explains terms like UVA, UVB, broad-spectrum. It discusses differences in regulations, wavelengths we’re trying to block and the damages they do to our bodies. The EWG guide discusses sun protection ingredients that block the different wavelengths and how sunscreens are tested. The misleading nature of ultra-high SPF is explained, as well as recommendations for consumers to be aware and to stay safe regarding sun exposure.

I was happy to see graphic 2 show that clothing (“shirt”) is the best at blocking all wavelengths – I always use clothing as a first defense against the sun – and that zinc oxide is a decent broad spectrum ingredient, since that is my go-to active ingredient in sunscreens I use. For those particularly interested, this EWG guide is worth a read, or at least a skim. It’s definitely a lot to take in!

Happy summer and stay safe!