Natural Sunscreens – Skip the chemicals and go au naturel!

Natural Sunscreens – Skip the chemicals and go au naturel!

Natural Sunscreens – Skip the chemicals and go au naturel!


The sun is shining and the outdoors is calling, but before you go frolic with friends and family, slip-slop-slap (as the Aussies and Kiwis say)! As a reminder, this means to slip on a shirt, slop on some sunscreen, and slap on a hat. But about that sunscreen… are all those chemicals on the label doing more harm than good? Are natural sunscreens the better choice?

It’s a tragic irony that some of the chemicals in conventional sunscreens are carcinogenic in themselves, while others are known to destroy coral reefs and harm other wildlife that helps lure us to sunny spots in the first place. Avoiding oxybenzone and octocrylene (two of the worst culprits) need not mean skipping the slopping though. Instead, natural sunscreens can help, especially in a pinch.

What are natural sunscreens

Two of the best natural sunblocks are titanium dioxide and zinc oxide. These mineral sunscreens block ultraviolet rays really well and don’t break down to create toxic chemical byproducts as they do so. They guard against both UVA and UVB rays, meaning they help protect against skin cancer and wrinkles caused by sun-induced collagen degradation.

The trouble with these mineral sunblocks though is that they tend to be thick and somewhat opaque, resulting in that not so summer chic Casper the Friendly Ghost aesthetic. To get around this concern, sunscreen manufacturers started to use nanotechnology to reduce the tint, and nanoparticles of titanium dioxide and zinc oxide can be harmful to health and the environment.

Where does that leave us?

Well, rummaging in the pantry perhaps.

Herbal and cooking oils as sunscreens

While non-nano mineral sunblocks are the most effective and safe sunscreens available, you can get away with using a more rudimentary form of natural sunscreen, namely olive, coconut, or even peppermint oil.

How much protection do these natural oils provide? Certainly not as much as a mineral sunblock or a chemical sunscreen, but enough for some situations.

To figure out just how protective these oils can be, researchers Chanchal Deep Kaur and Swarnlata Saraf evaluated the ultraviolet (UV) absorption ability of several volatile and nonvolatile herbal oils. To understand the results of the study, we have to first understand what we mean by SPF or sun protection factor.

What is SPF? SPF is a standard measure of how well a substance or formula absorbs the kind of UV radiation that causes sunburn. This relies on a measure called the minimal erythema dose (MED), which is how long it takes for skin to start burning.

In Deep Kaur and Saraf’s 2010 study, the scientists used equipment in the lab to test various oils, rather than deliberately exposing volunteers to sunburn. To the delight of many Italian beachgoers, olive oil was the clear winner, with an SPF or 7.5. Coconut oil had an SPF of 7, while peppermint oil, tulsi oil, and lemongrass had an SPF just over 6.

These oils also have the benefit of easy, uniform application because of their oiliness. And olive and coconut oil are great moisturisers too, helping to seal in moisture and prevent drying out due to sun and wind.

Isn’t 8 SPF pretty low though? Yes! For many people, this low level of protection would require reapplication of the oil every hour to every two hours, as well as after any vigorous exercise, sweating, swimming, and towelling off.

And there’s another problem with these natural sunscreens: they don’t appear to protect against UVA or UVC radiation, which are the most damaging to skin. So, even if you don’t tend to burn quickly and can get away with applying 8 SPF olive oil every couple of hours, other harmful UV rays are still getting through that oily barrier and causing cellular damage that could lead to cancer.

Finding a middle ground

Given the relatively poor sun protection afforded by culinary oils, do they have a place in our skincare routine? Absolutely. While it’s best not to rely exclusively on these oils for sun protection, they can definitely help if you’re in a pinch and have nothing else to hand to protect your skin. They’re also a decent alternative for folks who have allergies to the chemicals commonly found in sunscreen formulas.  Finally, these oils are an attractive base, and can provide pleasant natural fragrance and antioxidant support, for sunscreens that also contain stronger sun protection.

Saffron and quercetin are also being investigated for their possible contribution to sun protection, especially against UVB rays. One study found that a 4% saffron lotion had an SPF value equivalent to an 8% homosalate lotion.

To summarise, the best natural sunscreens are those based on non-nanoparticle titanium dioxide or zinc oxide. But if you really can’t abide the white tint of these sunscreens, you might consider using a combination of SPF clothing, shade, and either coconut or olive oil for any exposed areas of skin. Remember, though, that these only help to prevent sunburn (not skin cancer) and need reapplying very frequently.


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