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Sunscreen is a topical health and wellness product that protects your skin from the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays. Roughly 1 in 5 Americans will develop skin cancer in their lifetime, according to the American Academy of Dermatology.
Sunscreen is one tool in your toolbox that you can use to prevent the damaging effects of sun overexposure.
For reasons of cost, convenience, or safety, you may be interested in making your own sunscreen from scratch.
But before you break out the mason jars and aloe vera, you should understand how difficult it is to make your own effective sunscreen — and how important it is for your sunscreen to work.
We’ll explore some popular myths about DIY sunscreen, and provide recipes for making sunscreens that actually do protect your skin.
Sunscreen is one of those products that feels like it should come with its own dictionary for understanding the label. To understand what makes a sunscreen effective, let’s first break down some of the terms used to describe it.
SPF stands for “sun protection factor.” It’s a numerical estimate of how well a product protects your skin from ultraviolet B (UVB) rays, which is why a number is used to represent the SPF.
The American Academy of Dermatologists recommends using an SPF of 30 at the very least.
Broad-spectrum sunscreens protect your skin from the sun’s UVB rays as well as ultraviolet A (UVA) rays.
While UVB rays are more closely linked to causing skin cancer, UVA rays can still damage your skin and penetrate deep into your skin’s layers to accelerate wrinkles. That’s why a broad-spectrum sunscreen is a better bet for sun protection.
Sunblock is a term used to describe products that protect from UV rays by sitting on top of your skin, as opposed to being absorbed. Most sun protection products contain a mix of sunscreen and sunblock ingredients.
Chemical sun protection filters
In the United States, sunscreen products are regulated as over-the-counter drugs by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). That means that most sunscreen ingredients need to be evaluated for efficacy and safety before you can purchase them.
Even so, in recent years, certain ingredients in sunscreen have come under scrutiny for accelerating skin damage and possibly even contributing to cancer risk. Oxybenzone, retinyl palmitate, and parabens are some of the ingredients that consumers are concerned about.
Natural sunscreens are typically associated with products and ingredient blends that don’t contain a chemical sun protection filter.
They’re typically free of parabens, as well as the ingredients oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate, and octinoxate.
Most natural sunscreens use active ingredients from plants to coat the skin and reflect UV rays off the dermal layers. The active ingredients tend to be made of minerals, such as titanium dioxide or zinc oxide, as opposed to chemicals.
Effective sunscreens block both UVA and UBV rays
Now that we have some definitions out of the way, understanding what makes a sunscreen effective will hopefully make more sense.
Effective sunscreens and sunblocks reflect or scatter both harmful UVA and UVB rays so that they can’t penetrate your skin.
After the rays are scattered, organic material — the creamy components of sunscreen formulas — absorb the energy from the rays and distribute the energy over your skin in the form of heat. (Yay, physics!)
But here’s the thing about sunscreens that you make yourself with plant-based ingredients like red raspberry seed oil: While they may protect from some UV rays, they don’t contain a powerful UV filter.
Without the filter of titanium dioxide, zinc oxide, or another chemical ingredient that’s proven to scatter or reflect UV rays, no sunscreen you make will work to protect your skin.
That’s why earlier this year, the FDA updated their requirements for sunscreen products. In order to be considered generally recognized as safe and effective (GRASE), sunscreen products need to include titanium dioxide or zinc oxide.
There are plenty of homemade sunscreen recipes on the internet, but few of them will actually protect your skin from cancer-causing UVB and UVA rays.
We searched high and low for the DIY sunscreen solutions that appear most likely to be effective, and came up with the recipes below.
Homemade sunscreen with aloe vera and coconut oil
Aloe vera is a good active ingredient to reach for in your homemade sunscreen arsenal. It’s been proven to both treat and prevent burns on your skin.
Note: This recipe isn’t waterproof, and it’ll need to be reapplied often.
- 1/4 cup coconut oil (has an SPF of 7)
- 2 (or more) tbsp. powdered zinc oxide
- 1/4 cup pure aloe vera gel (
must be 50 percent or higherpure aloe)
- 25 drops walnut extract oil for scent and an
added SPF boost
- 1 cup (or less) shea butter for a spreadable consistency
- Combine all ingredients, except the zinc oxide and aloe vera gel, in a medium saucepan. Let the shea butter and oils melt together at medium heat.
- Let cool for several minutes before stirring in aloe vera gel.
- Cool completely before adding zinc oxide. Mix well to make sure the zinc oxide is distributed throughout. You may want to add some beeswax or another waxy substance for a stickier consistency.
Store in a glass jar, and keep in a cool, dry place until you’re ready to use.
Homemade sunscreen spray
To make a homemade sunscreen spray, combine the ingredients as described above, minus the shea butter.
Once the mixture has cooled completely, you can add a bit more aloe vera gel and a carrier oil such as almond oil, which has SPF properties of its own, until the mixture is a sprayable consistency. Store in a glass spray bottle and keep refrigerated for best results.
Homemade sunscreen for oily skin
If you have oily skin, you may be hesitant to slather on a DIY sunscreen that’s heavy on oil ingredients. But some essential oils can actually correct overproduction of sebum (oil) on your skin.
If you’re concerned about oil buildup on your skin, follow the recipe above, but swap out coconut oil — which is known to be comedogenic — for another carrier oil, such as jojoba oil or sweet almond oil.
Find jojoba oil online.
Homemade waterproof sunscreen
While some recipes may claim to be waterproof, there’s really no science to back up the idea of a homemade waterproof sunscreen.
The ingredients that make sunscreen waterproof are the same highly processed ingredients that most natural consumers and DIY sunscreen makers are looking to avoid.
These ingredients make it possible for your skin to absorb the sunblock components of sunscreen, and they can only be manufactured in a lab.
It’s valid to be concerned about some of the ingredients in popular commercial sunscreens, but that doesn’t mean that you should skip sunscreen altogether.
Of course, use common sense about the limits of what sunscreen can do. Even water-resistant sunscreen should be reapplied every two hours for best results.
Sitting in the shade, wearing sun-protective clothing and a hat, and limiting your total sun exposure time should be additional parts of your sun-protection plan.
The truth is, there’s not much information out there supporting the idea of homemade sunscreen.
Without a chemistry degree or pharmaceutical background, it’s difficult for anyone to calculate how much zinc oxide or titanium dioxide a sunscreen recipe needs to have for adequate sun protection.
It takes entire teams of chemists years or even decades to tweak and perfect sunscreen products that the FDA finds safe and acceptable. The chances of you perfecting a safe and effective sunscreen to compare with the products on the market are slim.
The good news is that you don’t have to settle for the bad stuff, even if you can’t DIY sunscreen.
New natural products are coming out every year, and the FDA has shown concern over possibly harmful ingredients in sunscreens by updating their guidelines.
With a proactive, educated consumer base and the strength of the wellness and natural product trends, we can expect better sunscreen options to hit shelves in the summers to come.
In the meantime, try to find the best sunscreen option you feel comfortable using — whether that’s DIY, a more natural product, or a product your dermatologist recommends.