Homemade recipes online offer no guarantees for sun protection and may leave you vulnerable to skin cancer, a study warns. When it comes to healthcare, millions of people turn to the internet and social media to find their own solutions, including formulas to shield themselves from the damaging effects of the sun.
A new study published in May 2019 in the journal Health Communication warns that a growing interest in natural products has led to a proliferation in homemade sunscreen recipes shared on Pinterest. Yet these DIY options may offer insufficient UV protection and heighten the risk of developing skin cancer compared with using commercially available sunscreens.
A review of 189 pins concerning homemade or natural sun protection formulas revealed that about 95 percent of these Pinterest posts positively portrayed their effectiveness. About two-thirds of these pins recommended recipes for DIY sunscreens — all of which inadequately safeguarded people from harmful ultraviolet radiation, researchers warned.
“The ingredients that are listed in these recipes may have some natural protective factor, but most really offer only minimal scientifically proven broad-spectrum protection from UV radiation,” says study author Lara McKenzie, PhD, principal investigator with the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio.
Common homemade sunscreen ingredients included coconut oil, shea butter (a fat extracted from the nut of the African shea tree), zinc, beeswax, olive oil, carrot oil, raspberry oil, lavender oil, and avocado oil.
“So Pinterest users beware,” says Dr. McKenzie. “What’s at risk for people who might try these and think they are a good idea is that at best, they will get a bad sunburn, and at worst, they may potentially get skin cancer down the road.”
Using DIY Sunscreens on Children Is Particularly Risky
Study authors express specific concern that one-third of the pins reviewed claim to offer DIY formulas that would provide protection ranging from SPF 2 to SPF 50, although none report to have been scientifically tested.
“The pins that seem most shocking or risky are the ones that make assertions about the SPF factor and they also show a picture of a child having the sunscreen put on them,” she says. “These formulas are not safe for adults, but kids are especially vulnerable — their skin is more delicate, they burn quicker, and they’re not making a choice for themselves.”
Latanya Benjamin, MD, a board member with the Society for Pediatric Dermatology in Hollywood, Florida, also criticizes Pinterest depictions using images of children.
“This is alarming given the consequence of just one blistering sunburn in childhood — say from use of an ineffective homemade sunscreen — can double a person’s lifetime risk of melanoma,” she says. According to the American Cancer Society, melanoma is responsible for the majority of skin cancer deaths, and scientists estimate this type of skin cancer will kill 7,320 Americans in 2019.
For the analysis, 23 formulas on Pinterest claimed to either be water-resistant or prevent sunburn, 38 said they were toxin-free, and eight mentioned prevention of skin cancer.
Untested Homemade Sunscreens Are Widely Circulating on Social Media
The investigation noted that a sample of 79 pins revealed that pins were saved from one to more than 21,700 times, with an average of 808 times.
McKenzie attributes the growing interest to DIY movement and the increasing popularity of natural, organic, and nontoxic products.
Recent research questioning the safety of commercial products may also be playing a role. In an article published in May 2019 in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reported that sunscreen chemicals may quickly enter the bloodstream. In a statement published in February 2019 in the Federal Register (The daily journal of the FDA), the administration declared that two ingredients in some over-the-counter sunscreens were neither safe or effective.
“The FDA research is fairly new, but it might be pushing a few people to think that using their own product would be better than using a commercially available product,” says McKenzie. “Still, the jury is out on that absorption being a problem, and in the meantime, until we have more data, we should continue to use commercially available sunscreen because it has all the protective factors.”
The American Academy of Dermatology Association (AAD) continues to recommend that all people follow a comprehensive sun protection plan that includes applying a broad-spectrum, water-resistant sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher to exposed skin. The organization also advises those going out in the sun to seek shade and wear protective clothing, including a lightweight, long-sleeved shirt, pants, a wide-brimmed hat, and sunglasses.
If you’re concerned about the safety of the ingredients in your sunscreen, talk to a board-certified dermatologist to develop a sun protection plan that works for you, the AAD suggests.
Why More Research on DIY Sunscreens Is Needed
Study investigators stress that this number of pins analyzed was relatively small, and much more research is needed on the topic. For this report, they collected pins for only one month and scientists sampled every fifth pin to collect data.
Dr. Benjamin, who was not involved in the study, says the results didn’t paint a full picture of how many people who had pinned these recipes were making and applying them.
“I believe the popularity of these online homemade recipes speaks to the fact that many people are interested in safe, nonchemical sunscreens, and we ought to research what safe possible alternatives exist,” she says. “More research on the safety of current and alternative natural sunscreen ingredients is definitely needed.”