When ‘natural’ is more dangerous

Maybe you’ve heard of “natural DIY sunscreens” or that plant oils provide sun protection. I see it constantly written about in the wellness community as a great “chemical-free sunscreen option.” Particularly coconut oil.

Most of these DIY recipes contain coconut oil mixed with a zinc oxide base. While the people writing about these “safer options” mean well, this information is also incorrect and unsafe when taken literally.

Let’s break down this myth and understand where it comes from, and why purchasing well-formulated sunscreen is the skin-safe choice.

Coconut oil is by far the most popular when the DIY community thinks of “natural” sunscreen. This belief may have started after just a single 2009 study suggested that coconut oil can act as sun protection with SPF 7. However, this study was conducted in a petri dish, not on human skin. This leaves a lot of room for inaccuracy.

Plus, SPF 7 doesn’t provide adequate sun protection that SPF 30 provides, according to dermatologists, nor does it hit the lower recommendation of (at least) SPF 15 from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The Mayo Clinic also mentions that coconut oil only blocks 20 percent of the sun’s ultraviolet rays compared to sunscreen’s 97 percent.

Also, sunscreen is one of the few personal care products that’s actually regulated by the FDA. Cosmetic sun filters are considered a drug ingredient.

In 2011, the FDA also put out new sunscreen guidelines that require researchers to apply sunscreen to 10 human participants and measure how long it takes before sunburn occurs. These guidelines help ensure that the products protect against UVA and UVB rays and sunburn. If you were to DIY your own sunscreen, it would be very difficult to prove how protective your homemade recipe is. It’s unlikely to meet the requirements for today’s guidelines.

Seeing as sun damage and sunburn is one of the highest risk factors for skin cancer, you don’t want to play around with this step of your routine.

It’s imperative that a sunscreen provides either UV-absorbing or UV-blocking protection to be effective. I couldn’t find one scientific study proving coconut oil, or any other natural oil for that matter, provided any adequate UV-absorbing or UV-blocking protection. But as far as zinc oxide (the main ingredient for sun protection in these DIY recipes), mixing active cosmetics isn’t as simple as adding the recommended amount.

There are several important factors to consider, such as:

  • the inactive ingredients and how they react with active ingredients
  • how it’s mixed to provide an even, protective coverage on the skin
  • the pH levels and how the formula will maintain the effectiveness in the bottle over time

These aren’t factors you can gauge with an at-home, DIY lab, which explains our next question: Have you ever wondered why sunscreens are generally pretty pricey? Or why a skin care brand doesn’t have a sunscreen in their collection at all?

It’s because sun protection is one of the most difficult products to formulate. It requires significant, expensive testing to be deemed safe and effective. There’s a whole lot of chemistry, years of testing, and proper ratios of active and inactive ingredients that go into creating a well-formulated sunscreen.

Chemical vs. mineral sunscreen benefits

  • Chemical sunscreen acts like a sponge by absorbing UV rays, then converting them into a less damaging form of radiation.
  • Physical or mineral sunscreen acts as a shield by sitting on top of the skin and blocking or deflecting UV rays.
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Whipping up a DIY face mask at home is one thing. Something so important as sun protection for you and your family isn’t something to DIY. Second- or third-degree burns and skin cancer are no joke.

1. The composition of plant oils can vary

Depending on location, climate, soil conditions, and the time of harvesting, natural oils have inconsistent quality. Especially when it comes to measuring fatty acids, vitamins, or mineral content.

2. Plant oils are unsuitable for blocking UV rays

In a 2015 study, researchers measured how UV rays were absorbed by:

  • coconut oil
  • aloe vera
  • canola oil
  • citronella oil
  • olive oil
  • soya bean oil

They found all these oils provided zero UV-blocking protection. The study also looked into vegetable juices, which showed promise as a UV-protecting ingredient, not as a sole sun protector.

3. Natural oils don’t absorb UV rays at the right wavelengths

This is the most compelling bit of information in regards to natural oils and sunscreen. In the same 2015 study, only pure vitamin E oil showed any significant UV ray wavelength absorption, at about 310 nanometers.

However, the sun’s UVB rays emit between 290 to 320 nanometers and UVA rays emit between 320 to 400 nanometers.

That basically means vitamin E doesn’t absorb any UVA rays (the rays that age us) and only about 10 nanometers of UVB rays (the rays that burn us). That’s pretty insignificant when talking about actual sun protection.

All the other oils, including coconut oil, fell terribly short at the correct wavelengths.

Natural oils like coconut oil are amazing for moisturizing, soothing skin, and providing antioxidants.

But are they adequate, effective, or safe sunscreens? From my expertise as an aesthetician and beauty product developer, absolutely not.

If you’d like to use natural ingredients for your sun protection, I recommend a non-nano zinc oxide or titanium oxide-based sunscreen formulated by a cosmetic chemist that’s gone through proper testing (which pertains to all commercial brands bought in reputable stores, not farmers markets or DIY sites).

You can read more about sunscreen, its effects on the environment, and recommendations for skin types here.

Dana Murray is a licensed aesthetician from Southern California with a passion for skin care science. She’s worked in skin education, from helping others with their skin to developing products for beauty brands. Her experience extends over 15 years and an estimated 10,000 facials. She’s been using her knowledge to blog about skin and bust skin myths on her Instagram since 2016.