A jar of homemade sunscreen

Sunscreen ingredients have been in the news a lot lately. Earlier this year, the Food and Drug Administration put out a call for more research on 12 common chemical sunscreen ingredients, such as avobenzone and oxybenzone. Then a new study showed that some of these ingredients are absorbed through the skin at higher levels than previously thought.

All that has bolstered arguments in favor of “all natural” sunscreens—leading some people to even make their own, using do-it-yourself recipes they find on social media sites and elsewhere online. There, 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.

More on Sunscreens

That trend prompted researchers at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, and the Brooks College of Health at University of North Florida in Jacksonville to examine how homemade sunscreens are portrayed on Pinterest. “So many people—especially parents—are concerned about using chemicals on their own, or their children’s, skin,” says Lara McKenzie, Ph.D., the principal investigator at Nationwide’s Center for Injury Research and Policy and a co-author of the study. “But the prevalence of these DIY recipes online gives them a false sense of security that making sunscreen themselves means making it better.”

What the Study Found

The researchers searched on Pinterest for “homemade sunscreen” and “natural sunscreen,” turning up almost 1,000 pins. They used those to create a representative sample group—made up of every fifth pin—of 189 pins.

The most common ingredients in the pins they analyzed were coconut oil (found in 66 percent of the recipes); essential oils, especially lavender and raspberry (48 percent); shea butter (38 percent); and zinc (35 percent). The researchers found that a third of the pins listed a specific SPF for a recipe, and 12 percent were claimed to be water-resistant.

Research indicates that some of these ingredients provide very slight protection against ultraviolet rays, McKenzie notes. But it’s nowhere near what you get from commercial sunscreens, or even close to the minimum SPF 30 that many dermatologists recommend. And, she points out, “the claims being made about how protective the combinations in these recipes are—there’s no way to verify that.”  

A Recipe for Sunburn

“Mixing up a sunscreen at home, following unscientifically substantiated recipes, can lead to an ineffective product,” says David J. Leffell, M.D., chief of the section of dermatological surgery and cutaneous oncology at Yale School of Medicine in New Haven, Conn. “Professional manufacture of drugs or medications [including sunscreen] 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 FDA. SPF, or sun protection factor, 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.

“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, M.D., 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. 

Safer Solutions

Despite the FDA’s call for more research on chemical active ingredients in sunscreen, neither the agency nor any health organization is saying that you should avoid using products that contain them.

Still, you might prefer to use a sunscreen 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 chemical ingredient that currently raises the most concern. In CR’s ratings, 12 oxybenzone-free sunscreens received a Very Good rating overall.

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