In recent years there has been some debate over the effectiveness of commercial sunscreen, as well as concerns about the potential harm of some of the chemicals used in these products. As a result, many folks (including myself!) are looking for herbal alternatives. Since there is a lot of misinformation out there about both conventional and herbal sunscreens, and the risks associated with inadequate sun protection are so high (watch this great video on the damage you don’t see), I wanted to share some tips on keeping yourself well protected.
What’s Wrong with Conventional Sunscreens?
There are have been several health concerns raised about many kinds of conventional sunscreens. While the research is not conclusive on some of these risks, I think it’s important to follow the Precautionary Principle (“better safe than sorry”) in regards to our health. In other words, if there is enough research to cause a reasonable question with respect to safety, why take the risk if there are other more healthy alternatives available to us?
Chemical-Based Sun Protection
Many of the chemical-based UV protective ingredients can cause allergic reactions and are known endocrine disruptors, interfering with the natural balance of our hormones. For example, oxybenzone, a very common sunscreen ingredient, has been shown to penetrate the skin, mimic estrogen, and reduce sperm count in animal tests1. Did you know there is no burden of proof on the manufacturer to test for safety with multiple applications over a number of years? Let alone with what the cumulative impact will be when paired with exposures to other common endocrine disruptors like plastics and pesticide residues! Given that there is mounting evidence that “real exposure” of mixed endocrine disruptors is linked to metabolic diseases like diabetes and obesity and breast cancer, let’s do all we can to prevent unnecessary exposures2,3.
As an alternative to chemical-based protection, mineral-based sunscreen ingredients stay on top of the skin to create a barrier from UV light (thus the white chalky look!), and don’t have the health risks associated with chemical sunscreens. Mineral sunscreens like zinc and titanium dioxide are therefore much safer choices to use on a regular basis for skin protection, and recommended by the Environmental Working Group, which has spent decades doing third-party research on the safety of skin products.
Another common risk noted in conventional sunscreens is the use retinyl palmitate, a form of vitamin A, that is thought to reduce the process of aging in skin. However, when used topically and exposed to the UV light, many studies have suggested that it actually increases risk of irregular skin growths and tumors, putting you at greater risk for skin cancer 4. If it is common practice for dermatologists who prescribe retinyl palmitate “anti-aging” creams to instruct patients to apply the cream at night to avoid photo-sensitivity, why would you want it in your sunscreen?
It’s best to avoid all sunscreen products with retinyl palmitate.
Powdered & Spray Sunscreens
While powdered sunscreens (often used as make-up) and spray sunscreens may seem convenient, they may not give adequate sun protection and are easily inhaled during application. Whether these sunscreens are made up of chemicals or minerals, they are likely to pose a health risk over repeated exposure. The FDA recently tightened its regulation on powdered sunscreens and is currently reviewing data on the efficacy of spray sunscreens.
It’s best to avoid all spray and powder sunscreens.
Do Herbal Sunscreens Work?
There have been lots of posts on the internet about DIY herbal sunscreens.? Plants generate their own form of protection from sun damage, and it makes sense that we could apply their chemistry to protect our own skin. For example, the traditional use of olive or coconut oil as a sunscreen has some scientific backing (both are about 7 SPF) 5 , and resveratrol (high in grapes and also the root of Japanese knotweed) has been shown to work like an antioxidant, antimutagen, and can inhibit UVB induced tumors6. However, I haven’t seen any evidence that plant-based ingredients can offer a reliable SPF as high as 15 or 20, which is what most folks will need for reasonable protection while spending time in the sun.
For many years, I had been crafting my own blend of herbal/zinc oxide sunscreen at home, and appeared to have great results (ie it was keeping my family free of sunburns down at the river for hours at a time). I’ve taught this method in my classes, as well, and have heard back from students who also had positive results with it. However, I recently decided to shift away from making DIY sunscreens because I recently learned that formulating a high-quality SPF cream is not as easy as just blending the right ingredients together. When using minerals like zinc oxide, the ingredients must be carefully formulated to suspend the particles in such a way that they provide even, consistent protection. Even though my skin had a white sheen from the zinc when I applied my cream, and I was not getting burned, I could not be certain I was getting even coverage (remember, you can get sun damage without ever getting a sunburn!). And I knew that the SPF in my herbal ingredients was not enough to keep my fair skin protected for very long in the sun. If you make your own sunscreens at home, and want a more detailed story of one formulator’s journey to craft consistently high SPF sunscreen products, check out this blog and decide for yourself whether it’s worth it.
It’s best not to rely on 100% herbal sunscreen for vulnerable skin or prolonged exposure.
However, there are lots of plant-based ingredients you can use at home to protect and heal from sun exposure – here are some of my favorite tips and favorite recipes that are easy to do at home!
And check out the EWG’s Skin Deep Database to find out what’s in your sunscreen, or to get recommendations for safe and effective products.
- “The Trouble with Sunscreen Chemicals”. Environmental Working Group. July 2017.
- Le Magueresse-Battistoni, B et al. Endocrine disrupting chemicals in mixture and obesity, diabetes and related metabolic disorders.? World Journal of Biological Chemistry. 2017 May 26; 8(2): 108 – 1119
- Heindal, JJ et al. Parma consensus statement on metabolic disruptors. Environmental Health 2015 14:54
- He, TT, Zuo, AJ & Zhao, P. Organochlorine pesticides accumulation and breast cancer: A hospital based control study . Tumour Biology, 2017 May:39(5).
- Lunder, S. “What Scientists Say About Vitamin A in Sunscreen”. Environmental Working Group. June 27, 2011.
- Kaur, CD & Saraf, S. In vitro sun protection factor determination of herbal oils used in cosmetics. Pharmacognosy Research. 2010 Jan-Feb; 2(10): 22-25.
- Korac, RR, & Khambholia KM.? Potential of herbs in skin protection from ultraviolet radiation.? Pharmacognosy Review. 2011 Jul-Dec; 5 (10): 164-173