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DIY: How to Make Your Own Safe Sunscreen

Updated on October 27, 2014
How to make your own safe, homemade sunscreen
How to make your own safe, homemade sunscreen

Most of us don't question the need to protect our skin from the sun these days. While people living in northern climates could use small doses of sunlight to build up vitamin D (fun fact: the sun is only strong enough to create vitamin D in your body if your shadow is shorter than you are), we know now that sunburns aren't just painful, but harmful. So we need to protect ourselves.

Just as knowledge has grown about the potential harmful effects of the sun, however, we are seeing mounting evidence of the potential harmful effects of some of the chemicals used in sunscreen. Luckily, you can take matters into your own hands!

Types of Sunscreen

The best way to protect yourself from the sun is to simply avoid it: stick to shade, cover up with clothes and a hat (I love sun hats!) Of course, sometimes you're going to be out in the sun for a good chunk of time and hats and shade aren't an option. That's where sunscreen steps in.

There are two types of sunscreens: physical and chemical. What we'll be making is a physical sunblock, but it's good to know the difference first.

PHYSICAL SUNSCREENS

Physical sunscreens block the sun by creating a physical barrier between your skin and the sun. This tends to be done with zinc oxide or titanium dioxide.

Zinc oxide is a mineral. It has an incredibly low absorption rate into the skin (less than .01%), is water resistant, and provides strong protection against UV rays. It is used in small amounts in some store-bought sunscreens (alongside chemicals) as well as in sunglasses to provide UV protection. It is even used in space to provide sun protection to astronauts who are welding in the great beyond. It is also soothing and is used to treat and prevent diaper rash or treat minor burns.

Titanium dioxide is also often used as a physical sunscreen. It effectively blocks UV rays without absorbing into the skin.

See this article on zinc oxide with the Environmental Working Group if you would like to see some of the research behind this (also refers to titanium dioxide).

CHEMICAL SUNSCREENS

Chemicals used in sunscreens include oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate and octinoxate. They each have different levels of concern and have different effects on the body. Most have high rates of absorption through the skin into the body and have even been found in mother's milk. Oxybenzone is known to act as estrogen in the body. Octinoxate also has hormone-like behaviour in the body causing thyroid and behavioural alterations in animals. Homosalate is broken down by the sun to toxic products and interferes with estrogen and progesterone in the body. Octocrylene has high rates of allergy.

Of the chemical sunscreens, avobenzone is the safest. It has a low absorption rate and does not disrupt hormones (although there is a high allergy rate as well). Octisalate has high absorption into the skin but no other documented impact.

For more on the chemicals and their risks, including references to the scientific studies of their risks, visit the Environmental Working Group's Sun Safety page.

MAKING YOUR OWN SUNSCREEN

This will make you a sunscreen with an SPF of about 20. Some people say you can just add extra zinc oxide for a higher SPF but I haven't read any substantiated reports on that.

Making sunscreen at home can be messy!
Making sunscreen at home can be messy!

Materials

As you can see, it's messy business making your own sunscreen. But so worth it! Here's what you need to make a sunscreen of about SPF 20:

Ingredients

  • ¼ cup coconut oil
  • ½ cup olive oil
  • ¼ cup beeswax
  • 2 Tbs zinc oxide
  • Essential oil or scent of choice (I put in a touch of vanilla)

Tools

  • A heat-safe jar or container (I just used a mason jar)
  • A small pot
  • A strong whisk, fork, or hand blender

Notes on the materials needed:

Zinc oxide was much easier to find than I thought it would be. In Vancouver I got it from Finlandia Pharmacy. Just call your local health food store or natural pharmacy and they will likely have it. It's also quite cheap! I got a container with easily 5 or 6 batches worth of zinc oxide for less than $10.

Beeswax is also pretty easy to find. You can find pellets or bars of it at many craft stores, health stores, or herbal dispensaries. It's quite inexpensive. If you've made homemade lotions before you may notice that this calls for a lot more beeswax than most lotions. While you could make it with less, and be fine, the extra wax I believe helps make the sunscreen a bit heartier - a little more water resistant, less easy to rub off, etc. If you want a less-heavy feel though, you can reduce the beeswax significantly.

For the mixing - I didn't really plan ahead well and just used a fork to mix the zinc oxide into my sunscreen, but it's actually quite firm with the amount of beeswax in the recipe. I wish I had used my hand mixer instead, as mine came out a bit lumpy. Learn from my mistakes!

I used a mason jar but wound up needing to transfer the lotion mixture to a larger bowl so I could properly mix in the zinc oxide. If you want to start with the larger bowl (so long as it's heat safe) you might make your life a bit easier.


Instructions

Now for the steps! Get ready, if you haven't done this kind of thing before you will be amazed at how quickly it comes together.

  1. Put a pot with a few inches of water on to boil.
  2. Combine all your ingredients except the zinc oxide in a heat safe jar or container.
  3. Place the jar (or other heat safe container) in the water - making sure, of course, that it doesn't come near the top. If you have a lid, put it loosely on top of the jar to protect the mixture from water or random things getting inside.
  4. Shake or stir the contents occasionally until everything is melted and combined. Remove jar from the pot (and turn off the stove!) and let it cool completely.
  5. Once cooled, add the zinc oxide. Now you have a bit of work ahead of you, stirring it all together. This is where I wish I'd used a hand mixer and wound up transferring the whole mess from the jar into a bigger bowl so I had more leverage to mix.
  6. That's it! You have sunscreen!

Safe and easy homemade sunscreen DIY.
Safe and easy homemade sunscreen DIY.
My mom and sister's burn-free arms.
My mom and sister's burn-free arms.

NOTES ON USE

First of all, I tested this sucker out in the best circumstances a sunscreen can be tested: on a boat with reflective water all around, in the middle of the afternoon. Plus, I convinced my entire family of pasty-skinned Mennonites to try it too. None of us got burned!

Of course, you want to follow normal sunscreen-use procedures. Reapply often and after swimming. This stuff is about SPF 20, so bear that in mind.

A physical sunscreen is always a bit harder to rub in, as the zinc oxide doesn't absorb into the skin like chemical sunscreens do. That means that you will have a slightly white sheen on your skin when you use this. Instead of being sad about that, take it as a sign that you're protected! Because of the high wax content, I have found it mighty beneficial to scoop a bit out of the jar with my fingers and rub it in my hands a bit to warm it up before rubbing it on.

WARNINGS ABOUT OTHER NATURAL SUNSCREENS

This sunscreen is safe and tested. Zinc oxide is used in many commercial sunscreens as well as other products where sun protection is necessary. It has been thoroughly tested and is known to protect you from the sun. I have noticed an alarming number of blogs claiming that other products provide sun protection, when they don't (or the amount is negligible). Let's break it down:

Coconut oil: very very small amounts of SPF naturally occur (like SPF 2-3). It's not safe to use on its own!

Essential oils: NO SPF! You cannot just add lavender, myrrh, or carrot seed oil to a carrier oil and expect to be protected. While these can help treat a burn if you have one, they are not effective preventative measures and it is not safe to use them on their own. (More on essential oil risks here.)

© 2014 Andrea

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