In the book Zero to One, Peter Thiel asks readers to consider what views/truths they believe that very few people agree with them on. For me, one such personal belief is that most sunscreen is not helpful in avoiding skin cancer and may actually increase the chances of it! This is one of the reasons I’ve been making homemade sunscreen for years (even though I rarely use it).
Sunburn is harmful… we all agree on that and it should absolutely be avoided. But sunscreen isn’t the only way to avoid it.
It’s definitely not a popular opinion, and I’m certainly not encouraging you to avoid wearing sunscreen or to ignore the advice of your doctor. I am, however, encouraging you to do your own research, look at the actual studies, and use common sense when it comes to sun exposure.
Why Make Homemade Sunscreen?
I explain in full my stance on sunscreen here, but here’s why I decided to try making my own years ago.
Avoid Hormone-Disrupting Chemicals
It’s interesting to notice that in the years since sunscreen use began, skin cancer rates have actually risen. In fact, many reports show that most sunscreens actually raise skin cancer risk. This may be due in part to the fact that many sunscreens contain endocrine-disrupting chemicals such as oxybenzone. Oxybenzone is a known hormone disruptor that is not recommended for use on children. It has been banned in many locations world-wide.
My homemade sunscreen recipe relies on a physical mineral barrier that stays on the surface of the skin rather than penetrating through as most chemical sunscreens do.
Of course, there are many more mineral sunscreens with safer ingredients on the market now than when I first started making homemade sunscreen. (I’ve listed some of my favorite EWG-rated sunscreens below.) That being said, you still have to read labels because even more “natural” sunscreens can still contain problematic ingredients.
Protect the Coral Reefs
Recent research is showing compounds in many types of sunscreen harm ocean life, especially coral. Researchers estimate that over 5,000 metric tons of sunscreen wash off of swimmers each year. This “swimmer pollution” threatens a large part of the coral life in the ocean and indirectly many other ocean species as well. This is because these compounds may awaken dormant viruses in symbiotic algae called zooxanthellae, which provide food and color to the coral.
Some sunscreen ingredients have even now been banned in some places due to their negative environmental effects on the coral reefs. This homemade sunscreen recipe avoids all such ingredients.
The Vitamin D Factor
Also, our bodies need some exposure to the sun to formulate vitamin D, a necessary building block for correct hormone function. Combine vitamin D deficiency with sunscreen ingredients such as oxybenzone (a hormone disrupter and not recommended for use on children) and it is any wonder some of us are concerned?
I don’t buy the idea that even moderate sun exposure is harmful when our bodies need vitamin D and light exposure for so many aspects of health. I personally take astaxanthin daily to help protect my skin from the inside out (read about why I do this here).
Looking at these reasons, to me it makes sense to ask whether sunscreen is the best or only way to avoid sunburn.
Is Homemade Sunscreen Dangerous?
Several recent articles claim that homemade sunscreens are harmful and that a person should never consider making their own sunscreen. Their reasoning is that you can’t verify the SPF with homemade sunscreens, so the chance of burning is higher.
I certainly agree that homemade sunscreens don’t have the lab testing that conventional ones do, but you know what else they don’t have? Endocrine disruptors and coral-killing compounds. Also, sunscreen should be a last resort, according to the EWG, as shade and getting out of the sun in the heat of the day are better options anyway.
So while it may be true that we shouldn’t use homemade sunscreens in the same way we use conventional ones, I’d also argue that we shouldn’t use conventional sunscreens in the way we normally do either!
Bottom Line: Use common sense and get safe sun exposure. The amount and safety will vary by person and I definitely recommend doing your own research and talking to a knowledgeable naturopath or dermatologist to figure out what works best for you.
A Common Sense Approach to Sun
In most cases, my approach to sun exposure is to get adequate but moderate daily exposure, without getting close to the point of burning. Since most of us don’t work outside these days, it actually takes effort to get daily sun, rather than to avoid it. I definitely don’t slather on the coral-destroying sunscreen in the off chance I might encounter a few stray rays of sunlight, and in fact, I welcome it!
In fact, thanks to Nutrition Genome Testing, I know that I have mutations that make it very difficult to get enough vitamin D. This puts me at risk for a lot of serious diseases and taking supplements doesn’t work very well to raise my levels. For this reason, my doctor advised me to get adequate vitamin D… from natural sun exposure.
Of course, there is a limit to how much sun a person needs or should get. When I reach this limit, I personally:
Use the Shade or Cover Up
In the event that I’m going to be out in the sun for much longer than my skin is used to, it is often easy enough to just put on a hat or shirt to shield my skin. This is the approach that the Environmental Working Group recommends. It is more effective at stopping excess sun exposure, costs less, and doesn’t harm the ocean. A common sense win/win scenario.
Use Natural Sunscreen When Needed
If I’m going to be in intense sun and can’t easily cover up when I’ve gotten enough sun, I will very occasionally use a natural sunscreen. I’ve yet to use it this year, and hope not to at all, but I’m sharing my personal recipe (and healthiest options for store bought sunscreens).
Important Note: Unlike most sunscreens, natural and homemade sunscreens may not be as waterproof or have as high (or broad spectrum) SPF. Homemade versions may not protect as fully against UVA and UVB rays. I am not recommending entirely avoiding sunscreen or getting too much sun that could lead to sunburn or sun damage.
Support Skin From the Inside Out
Sun exposure itself is not the only factor linked to skin cancer. Many nutritional factors, such as optimal vitamin D levels or even reducing our consumption of harmful omega-6 vegetable oils, can have a big impact on skin health. See this post for how I optimize my diet and supplements for healthy skin and improved sun tolerance.
Natural Sunscreen Ingredients
Many of the ingredients in this recipe have a natural SPF (sun protection factor). This is a natural recipe and has not been tested by a regulatory organization for exact an SPF. For this reason, I can’t (and don’t) make any claims or even guesses as to the combined SPF.
The individual ingredients are considered low SPF and generally quoted at these levels:
- Almond oil: SPF around 5
- Coconut oil: SPF 4-6
- Zinc oxide or titanium dioxide: SPF 2-20 depending on how much is used
- Red raspberry seed oil: SPF 25-50
- Carrot seed oil: SPF 35-40
- Shea butter: SPF 4-6
The final version will have a varied sun protective ability depending on the amount of each ingredient used. For a simple version, even just coconut oil and shea butter with some zinc oxide or a little raspberry seed and carrot seed oil will work for moderate exposure.
As always check with your doctor or dermatologist before using any new products.
NOTE: This is an improved recipe since many people were having trouble getting the temperatures exactly right to get the lotion to emulsify (as per the comments below). This recipe should not have any of those issues!
Homemade Sunscreen Recipe
- Combine all the ingredients except zinc oxide in a pint-sized or larger glass jar.
- Fill a medium saucepan with a couple inches of water and place on the stove over medium heat.
- Put a lid loosely on the jar and place it in the pan with the water.
- Shake or stir the jar occasionally to mix the ingredients as the melt.
- When all the ingredients are completely melted, stir in the zinc oxide, and pour into whatever jar or tin you will use for storage.
- Stir a few times as it cools to make sure zinc oxide is incorporated.
- Store at room temperature or in the refrigerator to increase shelf life.
- This sunscreen is not waterproof and will need to be reapplied after sweating or swimming.
- Make sure not to inhale the zinc oxide. Use a mask if necessary!
- Add more beeswax to make thicker sunscreen, less to make smooth sunscreen.
Store in a cool, dry place or in the fridge.
- I prefer to store in a small canning jar and apply like a body butter. It will be thicker, especially if you use coconut oil in the recipe.
- Remove the zinc oxide and this makes an excellent lotion recipe!
An Even Faster Way to Make Sunscreen
- Get a bottle of your favorite lotion (that doesn’t contain citrus oils!)
- Add a couple tablespoons of non-nano zinc oxide
- Mix well
You can also make sunscreen bars by using many of the same ingredients!
Store-Bought Natural Sunscreens
Not Interested in DIY? I’ve gotten numerous questions over the years about pre-made sunscreen options for those who don’t have the time or desire to make a homemade version of their own. I list my favorite store-bought brands in this post.
This article was medically reviewed by Dr. Scott Soerries, MD, Family Physician and Medical Director of SteadyMD. As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you talk with your doctor.
What do you think? Avid sunscreen user or vitamin D junkie?