There are a few simple products you can make at home, but I personally recommend that people buy sunscreen to ensure adequate protection. Some plant ingredients may provide some sun protection. But these plant ingredients usually have low amounts of SPF (usually SPF 1 to 8), or they only block some of the sun’s UV rays (up to 20-30% of UV rays). Some carrier oils and butters that have low levels of SPF or that only block some UV rays are shea butter, sesame oil, and olive oil.
Some plant ingredients may have higher SPF values, but their SPF values have not been determined yet. An example is red raspberry seed oil. In Oomah et al.’s study (Oomah et al., 2000), they used a spectrophotometer to test the optical transmission of red raspberry seed oil. Their data indicated that red raspberry seed oil has some absorbance in the UV-B and UV-C ranges, and that it can shield against UV-A damage by scattering. They stated that red raspberry oil’s optical transmission was comparable to the optical transmission of titanium dioxide preparations (the SPF value of the titanium dioxide preparations–and not the SPF of red raspberry oil–was 28-50). They hypothesized that red raspberry oil could potentially act as a broad spectrum UV protectant. However, as far as I know, red raspberry oil has not been tested yet for SPF on human skin. In the U.S., in vivo tests (done on human skin) are used to determine a product’s SPF. So red raspberry seed oil has much potential for sun protection, but human testing is still needed to determine its SPF.
I do not suggest relying on using only plant ingredients for sun protection, since they usually do not contain enough SPF. However I still highly recommend using them on the skin, since many are super rich in antioxidants and other nutrients, and they have many other skin benefits. And they will still help protect the skin a little! You may want to try making an oil based serum (see basic recipe below) or make whipped shea butter (whip the shea with a mixer or beaters for a few minutes or longer. You can add some carrier oils for a lighter texture, if desired).
A few other simple reliable sun protection tips: wear a hat and protective clothing. Try to stay in the shade when outside. Reapply sunscreen often! And if you get sunburn use natural plant ingredients to soothe the skin.
Two natural ingredients that provide known high levels of SPF are zinc oxide and titanium dioxide (these are natural ingredients but they are lab processed). They are physical sunscreens and they work by reflecting, scattering, and absorbing UV rays. Zinc oxide is a more effective broad spectrum sunscreen than titanium dioxide. There is some debate on using these ingredients, but I think both zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are much safer choices than many synthetic sunscreen ingredients.
Many DIY crafters like making their own zinc oxide or titanium dioxide based sunscreens. However, to my knowledge, there is no way to tell how much SPF a product has, unless it has undergone lab testing. The SPF of a sunscreen depends on a wide range of factors such as the type of zinc oxide or titanium dioxide (there are several different kinds), zinc oxide and titanium dioxide particle size, viscosity, the other ingredients in a formulation, the kinds of emollients, the type of emulsion, etc. All of these factors can greatly affect the SPF value of a product. So that is why (when buying sunscreen), you may see one brand with low amounts of zinc oxide and titanium dioxide which has a high SPF rating, and you may see another brand that has higher amounts of zinc oxide and titanium dioxide but it has a much lower SPF value than the first brand.
Zinc oxide or titanium dioxide vendors usually can’t tell you how much zinc oxide or titanium dioxide to add to formulations to equal a certain amount of SPF (in the U.S. sunscreens are considered drugs and not cosmetics). However, they may recommend minimum and maximum usage levels.
Many DIY crafters claim their recipes have a specific SPF value. But it is extremely expensive to test a product’s SPF, so it is highly unlikely their sunscreen has undergone testing. Their DIY sunscreen most likely has some sun protection but its true SPF value is unknown. I would also not rely on online charts that state the SPF of certain amounts of zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, since they are usually inaccurate or not legit. For example, the charts and recipes I’ve seen don’t state the type of zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, and they often use terms like ‘micronized’ instead of giving the actual particle size. Many use measurements like teaspoons or tablespoons (which aren’t accurate measurements when using powders. It is much more accurate to use a scale), or they don’t take into consideration the other ingredients in a product that may affect SPF (the factors listed above). They also don’t list the source of their information (did their sunscreen undergo lab testing, or are they just guessing the SPF?).
That said, it is very easy to make your own DIY zinc oxide or titanium dioxide based sunscreen, but please note that you won’t know the actual SPF of your formulation. If you still choose to make your own, use as high of an amount of zinc oxide or titanium dioxide as you can. Your creation will probably provide some sun protection, however, adequate sun protection is not guaranteed in a DIY formulation.
To make a DIY sunscreen: simply add zinc oxide or titanium dioxide to a lotion, cream, or balm base. Many crafters usually add anywhere from 2 to 25% of zinc oxide, titanium dioxide, or a blend of the two, to their bases. For some types of zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, the maximum concentration may be less. Try to use as much zinc oxide or titanium dioxide as possible (the thought process behind this is that if you use the maximum concentration, it will probably be enough protection). Be sure to use a blender or a very good mixer when mixing zinc oxide or titanium dioxide into your base.
I recommend only using your DIY creations if you are going outside for a few minutes (like if you were going to get the mail or water a few plants). But if you are going to be outside for more than a few minutes (like if you are having a barbeque, going to the beach, hiking, having a picnic, or going to be outside for several minutes to hours), I do not suggest relying on a DIY product. In that case, it is best to buy a sunscreen, since the SPF is known and has been tested. It is better to be safe than sorry, in my opinion!
Oomah, B.D., S. Ladet, D.V. Godfrey, J. Liang, and B. Girard. 2000. Characteristics of raspberry (Rubus idaeus L.) seed oil. Food Chemistry 69: 187-193.
The Environmental Protection Agency’s Sunscreen: The Burning Facts pdf:
The Library of Congress’s Everyday Mysteries question on sunscreen. Includes links to a few other good websites about sunscreen.
Here are some of my articles you may be interested in:
My eco living article on moisturizers. This article explains why carrier oils, butters, water rich ingredients, and moisturizers are important for the skin:
A recipe from my eco blog on simple elixirs (oil based serums):
My eco blog entry on shea butter:
My eco living article on sun protection, sun burn, and hydration: