Spring and summer mean lots of sun rays that bring joy and also cause some trouble, especially on light or fair skinned people. There are multiple ways of preventing sunburns, but the most common are wearing protective clothes and/or sunscreen. The latter has many users (myself included), but also many opponents who believe sunscreen creams contain many harmful ingredients that even contribute to skin cancer. Learn more about skin protection and why DIY sunscreen isn’t safe for use.
This article is quite long, so be free to skip to these sections:
- Why we need sun
- Benefits of sunscreen
- Are sunscreen creams dangerous?
- How can we protect from sunburns?
- Alternatives to sunscreen
- But people used to live without sunscreen… (ozone layer etc.)
- Are DIY sunscreen creams safe?
- Oils instead of creams
- How to make DIY sunscreen
- My thoughts & conclusion
- Sources & interesting links
Sun emits different rays and one of those are ultraviolet (UV) rays. We know two types of those, UVA and UVB rays. Sunscreen products help absorb or reflect some of these rays and prevent/minimize sunburns and other side effects of sun exposure (like skin cancer).
Sunscreen protection can be physical (reflect the sunlight) or chemical (absorb UV light). The physical sunscreen examples are natural creams that create a white layer over the skin and are visible with our eyes. Sunscreen can be broad spectrum (block UVA and UVB rays) or simple (blocks only UVB rays, but not UVA), which means that we don’t get burned, but can still get melanoma (cancer) and photodermatitis (photo allergy).
Physical protection: zinc oxide and titanium dioxide
Chemical protection: oxybenzone and many others
Who should take extra precaution:
- people with family history of skin cancer
- children (especially under 6 months)
- people with sun sensitivity
- light and fair skinned people
- people with freckles
Dermatologist will likely tell you that ‘no tan is the healthy tan.”
- prevent sunburns
- minimizes chances of skin cancer (broad spectrum sunscreen)
- slower aging of skin
A study, conducted in 2013 in Australia, found that people who applied sunscreen every day had smoother and more resilient skin (the study took 4,5 years). They had roughly 50% fewer melanomas than those who were left alone to use (or not use) sunscreen. Similar researches have proved the sunscreen’s effectiveness at blocking the development of squamous-cell and basal-cell cancers as well.
This question can only be answered by professionals (dermatologists) and not by bloggers who often mark an ingredient as dangerous if it’s difficult to pronounce. All sunscreen creams (and other products, like sprays, lotions, gels) have to be dermatologically tested before they can be put on the market. Of course, there are different regulations on each market and while we can discuss the effectiveness of these products, we don’t need to question its safety.
Studies have shown there does appear to be a link between increased use of sunscreen and a higher risk of skin cancer. However, the study never reported a direct association between the use of sun cream and malignant melanoma, rather that sun cream offers a false sense of security. People apply sun cream thinking that they can stay out in the sun for longer, which means more skin damage and an increased risk of skin cancer. (Telegraph)
Safety of sunscreen products was questioned with the rising amounts of skin cancer patients, but a research med in 2006 only questioned the safety of zinc oxide when it enters skin cells. This does not happen with regular sunscreen because the particles are too large to enter and they remain on the surface.
The other problem with the widespread use of sunscreen is the potential of vitamin D deficiency. People need some sun exposure to create vitamin D, but the advised time is only 5 minutes 3x a week without any sunscreen or protective clothes. While vitamin D overdose is not possible, it’s still not wise to expose to the sun without protection in the name of vitamin D production. The risk of cancer and sunburns is just too high according to the dermatologists. While most of us don’t use enough sunscreen to really create the SPF factor that’s written on the product (more about this later), we also probably don’t cover with the cream from head to toe, so there is no risk of deficiency for healthy individuals who spend some time outside. 🙂
Vitamin D can be found in oily fish, egg yolk, red meat.
*as a side note: I noticed quite a few discussions on the Internet about vitamin D deficiency and while in Europe (Slovenia) there are very rare cases of vitamin D deficient people, there seems to be quite a larger audience of this deficiency in North America (75% by some sources). Especially the northern countries with less sun exposure but also people who spend most of their days inside are larger populations with this deficiencies. Most people think that vitamin D deficiency is more important and vital for the prevention of all types of cancer rather than using sunscreen, but since these people aren’t professionals (dermatologists), we might take their opinion as it is-an opinion without scientific proof. While there is the possibility of pharmaceutical companies to connect with medical institutions so that those would suggest us the use of sunscreen, this also seems quite unbelievable. We shouldn’t forget that doctors help save people and not create patients. 🙂
Also, sunscreen in spray can be dangerous if it’s inhaled, so use it in well-ventilated rooms and avoid them spraying on the face or on children. They are also flammable, so be careful.
Active ingredients of sunscreen creams:
Physical protection: zinc oxide and titanium dioxide
Chemical protection: oxybenzone and many others
Find more about ingredients here.
Proponents of DIY sunscreen believe that commercial creams contain ingredients that even increase the risk of various types of cancer, but we shuldn’t forget that we don’t only use sunscreen. Just think about food, chemicals and more. Some believe that higher usage of vegetable oils and processed sugars are responsible for higher sun sensitivity and they suggest paleo diet, but there is no scientific proof of this. Read more about this here and here.
Conventional sunscreens might:
- Absorb into the blood
- Release free radicals in sunlight
- Act like estrogen
- Disrupt hormones
- Cause allergic reactions
- Cause skin irritation
- Have no rigorous safety standards
This list of possible side effects of commercial sunscreen creams is by dr. Axe (doctor of natural medicine), who strongly advises against the use of commercial sunscreen. He suggests using natural sunscreen with titanium dioxide and zinc oxide and you can learn more by clicking here.
All sunscreen products are marked with an SPF (sun protection factor) that show the strength of the product.
The SPF rating is a measure of the fraction of sunburn-producing UV rays that reach the skin. For example, “SPF 15” means that 1/15th of the burning radiation will reach the skin, assuming sunscreen is applied evenly at a thick dosage of 2 milligrams per square centimeter (mg/cm2). A user can determine the effectiveness of a sunscreen “by multiplying the SPF factor by the length of time it takes for him or her to suffer a burn without sunscreen.” Thus, if a person develops a sunburn in 10 minutes when not wearing a sunscreen, the same person in the same intensity of sunlight will avoid sunburn for 150 minutes if wearing a sunscreen with an SPF of 15. It is important to note that sunscreens with higher SPF do not last or remain effective on the skin any longer than lower SPF and must be continually reapplied as directed, usually every two hours. (Wikipedia)
Higher SPF does not mean that we can spend unlimited amounts of time outside in the sun, especially not in the peak hours (10AM-5PM during summer). SPF factor only shows how tanned our skin is and how quickly it tends to get burned. SPF does not count the effects of UVA rays that don’t cause sunburns but premature aging. Be careful to use broad spectrum sunscreen, but even some products that are marked as such, don’t contain enough protection from UVA rays.
It’s important to know that we should re-apply the sunscreen after swimming, sweating and wiping. We should also apply it after 2 hours. Not reapplying could even cause more cell damage than not using sunscreen at all, due to the release of extra free radicals from those sunscreen chemicals that were absorbed into the skin. This does not mean that we shouldn’t use sunscreen, but that we should use it properly. Use a sunscreen 30 minutes prior to sun exposure, re-apply after 2 hours and don’t spend (too much) time outside during peak hours (10AM-5PM).
How high should the SPF be?
Higher SPF does not automatically mean it’s better. In creams with SPF above 50 (which blocks an estimated 98 percent of UVB rays), the increase in UVB protection is minimal comparing to lower SPF rates. Products with higher SPF may also make you less likely to re-apply and use less product.
Effectiveness of sunscreen products
Sunscreen creams are less effective at blocking UVA rays than UVB rays and this is the reason why people question their effectiveness. UVA rays cause skin cancer and this is what we are trying to prevent, but sunscreens don’t seem to be the best solution.
The other problem with sunscreen, especially higher SPF, is that people think they can use one layer for hours until they get burned, but they should re-apply the cream and use other protection. Suncream isn’t the ideal solution, but who wants to wear long sleeved and trousers in the hot summer days?
What are the dosages?
The dose used in FDA sunscreen testing is 2 mg/cm2 of exposed skin. An average person (height 5 ft 4 in (163 cm) and weight 150 lb (68 kg)) wearing a bathing suit should apply approximately 30 g (30 ml or approximately 1 oz) evenly to the uncovered body area. This is the”golf ball” size amount of product per body or at least six full teaspoons. For covering only the face, this is about 1/4 to 1/3 of a teaspoon for the average adult face. (Wikipedia)
Studies have shown that average person uses only 1/4 to 1/2 of the recommended amount and this decreases the SPF that protects us.
- use protective clothes (covering elbows, knees, neck, use a hat, if you are bald)
- be in a shade (umbrella, trees (note that even in shade some sun rays get through to your skin))
- mineral sunscreen: ingredients do not penetrate into the skin, but stay on the surface. Your skin will be white after the application, but on the bright side-you will know where you already applied it. 🙂
- use a ‘sunscreen for clothes‘: you can wash your clothes with a substance that creates an SPF factor for an additional protection.
But, as always, there are also some draw-back to the mineral sunscreen. Zinc has a devastating effect on corals and while titanium dioxide washes out into the sea to create hydrogen peroxide, which kills the nutrients that feed the small fish and then travels up the food chain to cause more devastation on the oceans and the planet.
People used to use oils to protect from sunburns, but we should also not forget that they used to live completely different than we do. Today the ozone hole is getting bigger and bigger and with this ecological problem, we also face an increase in sunburns, skin cancer, reduction of plankton population and damage to plants, all due to the thinning of the ozone layer.
The ozone layer absorbs UVB rays from the sun. The depletion of ozone could be the cause of increasing number of cancer patients, but there is no direct observational evidence linking ozone depletion and this disease. The reasons are:
- UVA rays are impossible to be absorbed by the ozone layer
- it’s impossible to control statistics of the lifestyle changes of population
Another form of skin cancer, malignant melanoma, is much less common (than squamous cell carcinoma) but far more dangerous, being lethal in about 15–20% of the cases diagnosed. The relationship between malignant melanoma and ultraviolet exposure is not yet fully understood, but it appears that both UVB and UVA are involved. Because of this uncertainty, it is difficult to estimate the impact of ozone depletion on melanoma incidence. One study showed that a 10% increase in UVB radiation was associated with a 19% increase in melanomas for men and 16% for women. A study of people in the southern Chile, showed a 56% increase in melanoma and a 46% increase in nonmelanoma skin cancer over a period of seven years, along with decreased ozone and increased UVB levels. (Wikipedia)
1 in 3 cancers diagnosed worldwide is a skin cancer, according to the American Cancer Society. And up to 95% of malignant melanomas are caused by excessive sun damage, found research from the International Agency for Research on Cancer.
Sun damage was also noted in non-human animals; in 2010 scientists in London found a rise in sun damage in over 150 Californian whales and feared that the thinning ozone layer is to blame.
If you read all the text above, you’re probably wondering:
a) whether DIY sunscreen is really effective or
b) how can I make it to decrease my chances of sun-related diseases.
Well, let’s discuss safety!
DIY sunscreen can have some crucial problems:
- it’s impossible to tell the exact SPF of your product
- you would need to make multiple batches of the same product with different ratios of active ingredient (zinc oxide) to try and see which one is the best (and gives the maximum protection)
- you can not make a cream with UVA protection because even commercial products can fail at this
- sunbathing without sunburns does not mean your skin isn’t damaged (remember: no tan is a healthy tan)
- DIY sunscreen can have low protection if the emulsion wasn’t made correctly (zinc oxide will sit on the bottom of the container) — we can discuss the process of making, but why would companies have such specialized equipment, if it was that easy to make it with a mixer? (just a food for thought, not making an argument. 🙂 )
The commercial sunscreen is made with a high-pressure machine called a homogenizer to break up zinc and titanium dioxode particles and distribute them evenly through a formula. (Allure)
You can find a chart of ‘SPF factors in food’ all over the internet and here are two examples.
You can find many other images across the web. While you can use these instead of sunscreen creams, you do not know the level of protection. Many claims on different blogs are based on misinterpretations of scientific reports.
Coconut oil or rosehip oil—or any oil- make you more likely to burn. Homemade sunscreens do more harm than good, because oils can absorb light, making UV rays penetrate the skin more. -Joshua Zeichner, a dermatologist in New York City.
What about tanning sunscreen creams and supplements for a better tan?
Tanning lotions are those that give you instant color and also the fake feeling of darker skin. This can be dangerous if you spend a lot of time outside and think that this darker color gives you protection from the sun. It’s just color and you will burn as quickly as you would naturally.
Supplements are those that you take orally and contain beta-carotene and lycopene that both help make you tan faster. You can also eat food with these two substances, but you’ll need to eat pounds (kilograms) of carrots to tan easily. 😉
I did not try any of these recipes, but you can find many interesting ones on these blogs:
- Homemade toast: DIY waterproof bars or lotion
- Scratch mommy: DIY sunscreen cream
- Wellness mama: DIY sunscreen cream
- Health impact news: Homemade coconut oil sunscreen recipe
- Freshly grown: Awesome DIY non-toxic sunscreen
I’m very light skinned and usually use SPF 30-50. I must say that even in April I got burned at 10AM while gardening for an hour, so you can get a picture. 🙂
I haven’t and probably won’t try this DIY sunscreen because it’s simply impossible to make such high SPF cream. But I would love to hear your experiences and thoughts on this topic, please comment below!
There are a few things I’ve seen personally about sun exposure and sun protection. Some people with naturally darker skin can start exposing to the sun in spring and be completely tanned by summer. This way they get a natural protection that’s still not safe but prevents sunburns. Some people are also more resistant to sunburns and skin diseases connected to sun exposure. Many can be exposed to the sun their whole life and be healthy, but others get skin diseases even though they use sunscreen/other sun protection. Even though we could say that sunscreen gets ‘baked’ into the skin, we shouldn’t forget that all products are tested for safety and effectiveness. It’s also important to use them safely (re-apply etc.) and use other protection (clothes).
I also found an interesting study that states that people who work outside have the lowest rates of melanoma. I’m guessing this could be connected to the constant exposure to the sun (every day from spring when sun rays are less harsh as in summer). We have to be honest and see that we/most of us spend most of our days inside and when we get outside it’s summer. Who has the time to spend a few hours a day from early spring to fall and avoid peak hours?
Oh, and one important note-I’m not a professional and so aren’t many other bloggers. Just say it, so people can know and make up their own mind. You’re the only person that should decide what to do since you’ll be the only one to carry all the consequences (good & bad)! 🙂
Another interesting quote is ”If you can’t eat it, you shouldn’t put it on your skin.”, but this just shows the whole problem with do-it-yourself mentality. Not everything can be re-created at home (I don’t like that either 🙁 ) and there is a reason for that. Would companies really spend that much money on expensive equipment and research, if we could mix it in our kitchen? I don’t think so.
So, to sum this (looooong) article up:
- sunscreen is proved to be safe (by FDA and other agencies)
- you NEED sun protection of some kind
- decide for what you think is best for YOU!
Tell me what you think and thanks for reading all of this! 🙂
Also, here is an AMAZING comment by a dermatologist who commented on a New York Times article. He shares a lot of useful information that we can all benefit from. 🙂
- ❗️ Homemade sunscreen by Wellness mama
- Why you can’t count on DIY sunscreen by Badger balm
- ❗️ The Truth About Homemade Sunscreen Recipes: A Beauty Don’t by Allure
- ❗️ Wikipedia-Sunscreen
- ❗️ Wikipedia-Ozone depletion
- ❗️ The Paleo guide to sunbathing by Paleo leap
- Toxic sunscreen ingredients by Sun tan science
- ❗️ Why (most) sunscreen is harmful by Wellness mama
- ❗️ You Asked: Is Sunscreen Safe — and Do I Really Need It Daily? by Time
- ❗️ Is sunscreen really toxic? by The Telegraph
- Ask the expert by The skin cancer foundation
- Melanoma by Vitamin D council
- The truth about homemade sunscreen by Homemade toast
- DIY Sunscreen – Easy To Make by Scratch mommy