Homemade Sunscreen Is a Definite Don't
Many people worry about the chemical ingredients in sunscreen, but DIY versions may put you at risk of skin cancer
A lot of people have a love-hate relationship with sunscreen. They want to protect their skin from damaging ultraviolet (UV) rays. But they don’t like the sound of all the chemical ingredients listed on the label. They may worry about whether those ingredients are bad for their health (and their kids’ health) or if they’re potentially harmful to the environment.
Such concerns have given rise to a cottage industry of home chemists devoted to whipping up their own sunscreen—using do-it-yourself recipes they find on social media sites and elsewhere online. (#DIYsunscreen has over 1,000 posts on Instagram, and there are pages of related pins on Pinterest.) Along with step-by-step instructions, some posters also offer their opinions on why you’d be better off skipping store-bought sunscreen, suggesting that homemade alternatives are better and safer. Many even go so far as to assign an SPF, or sun protection factor, to their DIY mixtures.
“So many people—especially parents—are concerned about using chemicals on their own, or their children’s, skin,” says Lara McKenzie, PhD, the principal investigator at the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, and a co-author of a 2019 study that explored how DIY sunscreens were portrayed on Pinterest. “But the prevalence of these DIY recipes online gives them a false sense of security that making sunscreen themselves means making it better.”
Testing the Trend
Research does indicate that some of the ingredients popular in DIY recipes provide very slight protection against UV rays, according to Julie Merten, PhD, associate professor of public health at University of North Florida in Jacksonville and a co-author of the Pinterest study. “Coconut oil, which is a staple in many of these recipes, tests at about an SPF 1,” Merten says, but many recipes containing it claim much higher levels of protection.
A Recipe for Sunburn
“Mixing up a sunscreen at home, following unscientifically substantiated recipes, can lead to an ineffective product,” says David J. Leffell, MD, chief of the section of dermatological surgery and cutaneous oncology at Yale School of Medicine in New Haven, Conn. Even if you were able to replicate the formula of a commercial product, that doesn’t guarantee the same outcome. Leffell likens it to following any other recipe. “You can use the exact same ingredients, but the texture and flavor can vary each time you make it.”
And, he adds, professional manufacture of drugs or medications (including sunscreens) is “actually quite strict and must meet defined performance endpoints.”
In order for a commercial sunscreen to claim a specific SPF or use the terms “broad spectrum” or “water-resistant” on the label, it must be tested according to methods set by the Food and Drug Administration.
SPF is a relative measure of how much protection a product offers against sunburn, which is primarily caused by UVB rays.
To earn the “broad spectrum” label, a product must pass a test showing that it also helps protect skin from UVA rays, which penetrate more deeply into the skin, causing damage that can lead to skin aging and skin cancer.
And one that makes a claim of “water-resistant” or “very water-resistant” has been tested to maintain its level of protection for 40 or 80 minutes, respectively, of swimming or sweating.
“People worry that sunscreen is unsafe, but what’s unsafe is making homemade sunscreen using ingredients without proven SPF or broad-spectrum coverage in formulations that aren’t standardized or verified for their efficacy,” says Joel L. Cohen, MD, director of AboutSkin Dermatology and DermSurgery in the Denver metropolitan area and an associate clinical professor of dermatology at the University of California, Irvine. “Do you really want to experiment on yourself or your child, testing out a recipe and seeing if you get burned?”
Consider that getting five or more blistering sunburns before age 20 increases your risk of melanoma (the most deadly form of skin cancer) by 80 percent, according to a 2014 study published in the journal Cancer Epidemiology Biomarkers & Prevention.
In 2019, the FDA put out a call for more research on 12 common chemical active ingredients in sunscreen, such as avobenzone and oxybenzone. There is some evidence that chemical ingredients can be absorbed through the skin. For now, neither the FDA nor any health organization is saying that you should avoid using products that contain them. Still, you might prefer to use a mineral sunscreen—one that contains zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide as active ingredients; the FDA says that it doesn’t need more data on the safety of these.
But in Consumer Reports’ tests, which are modeled on but differ from the ones the FDA requires sunscreen manufacturers to use, these “natural,” or mineral-based, sunscreens tended not to perform as well at those that contain chemical active ingredients. Some, however, did better than others in our tests (see below).
Another option is to use a chemical sunscreen that doesn’t contain oxybenzone, the ingredient that currently raises the most concern for both human health and marine life. Octinoxate, another chemical ingredient, may also have effects on the environment. While all of the top rated sunscreens in CR’s tests contain chemical active ingredients, the majority of the sunscreens we tested do not contain oxybenzone or octinoxate.
Top Sunscreens From CR's Tests
These chemical sunscreens, listed in alphabetical order, performed well in our ratings.
Mineral Sunscreens From CR's Tests
CR's testing found that these two mineral sunscreens provide acceptable protection, although they aren’t among the top performers in our tests.