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Dangers of DIY Sunscreen

by kelly / June, 17 2015 01:30

Photo of someone mixing ingredients together from a DIY sunscreen recipeImage © thedabblist

There is a whole online DIY movement these days.  I think in part due to the advent and popularity of great sites like Pinterest and Etsy.  I'm a fan of this movement as it can create some really authentic products in our over-marketed environment.  However I believe there are limits especially when it comes to sunscreen.  

You might be thinking, that's convenient, you own a suncare company but it's not about convenience, it's about safety and effectiveness. All sunscreens are actually regulated by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as over-the-counter (OTC) drugs with multiple testing requirements.  Additionally there are real dangers with creating your own sunblock.

Let me explain why DIYing your own sunscreen is a problem - it comes down to a few issues which I'll categorize broadly under the following:

  1. Chemistry
  2. SPF Math
  3. Essential Oils Misnomers


Here is a DIY sunscreen recipe I found online:

-¼ cup shea butter (SPF 4-6)
-2 tbsp. zinc oxide powder (SPF 20)
-¼ cup coconut oil (SPF 4-6)
-¼ cup cosmetic-grade beeswax granules
-20 drops carrot seed oil (SPF 35-40)
-1 tsp. raspberry seed oil (SPF 25-50)
-1 tsp. vanilla extract
-1 tsp. vitamin E oil

The blogger suggests to use a jar and saucepan to mix, heat, mix some more and refrigerate the ingredients and voila you have your sunblock.  But not so's not that easy to mix all these ingredients.  According to cosmetic chemist Ni'Kita Wilson in an interview she did with Allure:

"I have to use a high-pressure machine called a homogenizer to break up zinc and titanium dioxode particles and distribute them evenly through a formula...There's no way mixing with a spoon or a blender can come even close to do doing that, so you're going to have entire areas of skin that are exposed to UV rays." Also, coconut oil is a horrible base. "It doesn't mix well with physical blockers, and it's too thick to disperse them adequately, even with the kind of technology I have access to." 

Medical expert, Dr. Justin Piasecki, a Seattle-based plastic surgeon and founder of the Skin Cancer Center has similar advice and told the Huffington Post the following:

"It's not simply throwing the ingredients into a bowl and stirring with a spoon. The appropriate measurements need to be present or the active ingredient will likely end up in a clump at the bottom of your mixture and you won't have enough sunscreen to protect your skin," says Dr. Piasecki. "You could even end up with a formula that is uneven and blotchy with some areas of the body getting enough protection and others not so much."  

So the bottom line is using normal kitchen equipment and simply mixing the ingredients together does not make a sunscreen formula that will protect you from the harmful effects of sun exposure.  Want further proof - check out this one woman's experience with making sunscreen over two years, I really liked this quote from her (she doesn't recommend making your own sunscreen):

"The trouble with making your own sunscreen is that while it looks ever-so-easy from the ingredients list in reality there is a whole chemical dance that has to go on to get these things singing."


Now if someone took a look at the recipe above, saw all those amazing SPF values and added them up - that someone might think they would be getting a ridiculous SPF protection of 122.  But SPF is not calculated that way.  In fact experts say there is no way to test SPF levels at home or to test for broad spectrum (this means protection from UVA & UVB rays) protection.  For non-DIY sunscreens, to test for SPF levels and broad spectrum, the FDA requires multiple studies be conducted in the lab and on humans.  Again as a reminder to properly protect against both UVA and UVB rays, a broad spectrum SPF must be worn.  Thus with a homemade sunscreen there is no way to know how much protection you are getting.


See in the recipe above how there are SPF values written next to some of these essential oils.  Well, these SPF levels are not substantiated by FDA SPF testing and may even increase sun exposure.  According to Joshua Zeichner, a dermatologist in New York City told Allure the following:

"Homemade sunscreens do more harm than good, because oils can absorb light, making UV rays penetrate the skin more...That has the same effect as greasing up with baby lotion when you go to the beach. You're increasing your risk for skin cancer."   

And Dr. Piasecki says that:

"Many of the do-it-yourself sunscreens have oils in them and their preparations can cause breakouts and bumps."

Additionally, as I said, these SPF values have never been substantiated or calculated in the proper FDA regulated manner.  A Doctor in the House blog has a great post about the validity of some of these tests around essential oils.  For example the blog explains that the study around coconut oil often used to prove the oil's SPF value was done:

"In vitro, which means not actually calculating SPF on people as described earlier, but calculating the SPF based on how coconut oil behaved in UV light in a research lab."  

As mentioned above, proper FDA SPF testing is done on people.


In summary, it's best to buy sunscreen products that have gone through the proper formulation and testing to protect your safety.  Now I believe this homemade movement around sunscreen specifically came about because of concern over ingredient toxicity in many chemical sunscreens.  Then might I suggest a mineral based sunscreen that features natural and organic ingredients as an alternative like Block Island Organics :) - you know I had to plug us and at least I did it at the end!  

If you are interested in more suncare smarts, find them here

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