Homemade Sunscreen Won't Protect Your Skin

Experts say there aren't a lot of good reasons to make sunscreen from scratch. (Photo: paultarasenko/Shutterstock)

Search online for DIY sunscreen recipes and you'll find hundreds of thousands of results. People say they're opting for homemade sunscreen for several reasons. Many want to know exactly what they're applying to their skin. Others want to skip "toxic" chemicals and go a more natural route. Still others skip sunscreen entirely and choose other forms of sun protection. But homemade sunblock doesn't provide a good solution for anyone.

Sunscreens are regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to make sure the active ingredients are safe and that the SPF and broad spectrum coverage promises are proven. When you whip up your own concoction, you may know what ingredients you're applying, but you have no clue about protection.

To address this point, a team of researchers from the Center for Injury Research and Policy at the Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, and the Brooks College of Health at the University of North Florida looked at what was being shared on social media. Specifically, they looked at the most pinned homemade sunscreen recipes on Pinterest, many of which promise SPF of anywhere from 2 to 50. Nearly all the saved pins promised protection they couldn't deliver or included ingredients that have not been scientifically proven to provide protection from UV rays.

"The internet is a great place for families to go to for recipe inspiration and arts and crafts projects, but not necessarily for making their own safety-related things," Lara McKenzie, PhD, co-author of this study and principal investigator in the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children's, told Eureka Alert. The team's results will be published in the journal Health Communication.

Just a 'bad idea'

It's a point dermatologists have been making for years.

"You cannot possibly make your own sunscreen because it’s hard enough for companies to make sunscreens that are accurate in SPF as is. Thus that is a bad idea," New York-based board-certified dermatologist Debra Jaliman M.D. tells MNN. Jaliman was not involved in the study.

"A myth about sunscreen I frequently hear is that the chemicals in sunscreens are dangerous. When was the last time you read an article about someone dying from the chemicals in sunscreens? We have certainly read many articles about people dying from malignant melanoma and one person dies every hour from malignant melanoma in the United States."

When you apply DIY sunscreen, you have no idea if you will be protected until you take the risk of burning.

And just one bad sunburn during childhood or adolescence can nearly double the risk of developing skin cancer, according to the American Academy of Dermatology. Having five bad sunburns between 15 and 20 raises the risk of melanoma by a whopping 80 percent.

"The long and short of it is that it is better to trust the pros than try to make this stuff at home," Sonya Lunder, senior analyst at Environmental Working Group, tells MNN. "Formulating sunscreens is an art and a science."

You don't know what you're getting

Woman with umbrella
If you worry about chemicals in sunscreen, you can buy clothing and sun umbrellas with SPF in them. (Photo: Alexander Chaikin/Shutterstock)

Many of the DIY sunscreen recipes involve a mixture of zinc oxide, shea butter and oils. Paste zinc oxide can be an effective sunblock and is often used by lifeguards, says Rebecca Baxt, M.D., a board certified dermatologist who practices in Paramus, New Jersey.

"Plain zinc oxide is the best sunblock since it's a physical barrier and not much gets through it. It's a white paste so people don't like to use it much," she says. "It's not cosmetically pleasing."

But the zinc and titanium suggested in most DIY sunscreen recipes is generally in powder form.

Lunder especially cautions people against buying nano forms of zinc and titanium powder. "The particles are much more absorbed by the lungs and nasal passages — which is why we don’t recommend people use powder or spray sunscreens."

Other DIY recipes just include a mix of essential oils. In those cases, that might leave you with no sun protection at all. You could also have an unpleasant response to the ingredients.

"Making your own sunblock is unproven and untested so it's very easy to get a sunburn or allergic reaction and rash," Baxt says.

If you're worried about having an all-natural, chemical-free solution, there's a much safer, more effective alternative, she suggests.

"The best non-chemical sunblock is clothing, hat, umbrellas, and you can get those with SPF in them!"

And if you're trying to save money, Consumer Reports says doing it yourself isn't always the most economical way. On of the "best buys" on the organization's recent sunscreen rankings included one that was only 79 cents per ounce, which is likely cheaper than the ingredients you'd purchase to make sunscreen at home.