There’s nothing like seeing blue skies again after a long winter.
Whether you’re an early bird or night owl, you need a certain amount of sunlight to support your health. Sunlight exposure not only supports vitamin D production in our bodies, it also supports a healthy mood and promotes healthy melanin production. However, before you step out into the sunshine, it’s important that you take care to protect your skin.
The Sun and Your Skin
Harmful rays from the sun can cause damage to your skin, especially UVA and UVB rays. These rays can cause conditions like premature skin aging, eye damage, and more serious skin issues that may require medical treatment. Most people turn to sunscreen to protect themselves from these damaging rays.
While the benefits of sunscreen are well-documented, many of our sunscreens today contain chemicals and ingredients that can actually have negative effects on our skin. According to the Environmental Working Group,
Lab studies indicate that some chemical UV filters [in sunscreen] may mimic hormones or cause skin allergies, which raises important questions about unintended effects on human health from frequent sunscreen application.
Chemicals like oxybenzone, octinoxate, and homosalate may contribute to endocrine disruptions and other issues, and these are often found in the sunscreens we use every day.
As a result, many people are turning to alternative options for sun protection. In fact, research suggests that products like coconut oil, olive oil, astaxanthin, and aloe vera may work as sunscreen alternatives to protect your skin in the sun.
How Does Sunscreen Work?
Sunscreen is designed to protect your skin from ultraviolet radiation, which is part of the electromagnetic light spectrum that reaches the earth from the sun. UV (ultraviolet) rays have shorter wavelengths than visible light, and have the potential to cause significant damage to our skin, but much of it is filtered through the earth’s atmosphere before it can reach us. However, the rays that make it through the ozone layer can still have a negative effect.
There are two primary types of UV rays: UVB and UVA. UVB rays are responsible for short-term effects like sunburns, while UVA rays may contribute to long-term skin damage. Sunscreen acts as a protection from these rays by forming a protective barrier that reflects and scatters UV rays, or by absorbing rays and releasing them as heat. The amount of rays your skin is exposed to depends on a number of factors, including location (specifically your proximity to the equator), time of day, altitude, and season.
The SPF of a sunscreen stands for “sun protection factor,” and it refers not only to the amount of time a sunscreen will protect your skin, but also to the percentage of rays the sunscreen can block. For example, an SPF 30 sunscreen will protect your skin for about 10 hours, and will block about 97% of UV rays, while SPF 50 blocks about 98% of rays. There is no sunscreen that can protect from 100% of rays; even SPF 100 only blocks about 99% of UV rays.
Natural Sunscreen Alternatives
Recently, there have been a number of studies that have pointed to the existence of natural sunscreen alternatives to support your skin. These include oils like olive oil, coconut oil, and sesame oil, as well as plant extracts like aloe vera and nutrients like astaxanthin.
According to a 2011 study that examined the potential of herbs for sun protection, certain oils can be used as sunscreen alternatives to support healthy looking skin. Researchers noted that, “Sesame oil resists 30% of UV rays, while coconut, peanut, olive, and cottonseed oils block out about 20%.” In another study, the SPF of olive oil was found to be the highest, although relatively speaking these oils all have relatively low SPF values (between 2 and 8). Research indicates that these oils are best for short forays into the sun, rather than for a whole day at the beach.
While it is typically used to support skin after spending time in the sun, aloe vera may also offer a limited amount of sun protection. The study referenced earlier states that, “It has also been demonstrated that it [aloe vera] has a prophylactic effect if used before, during, and after these skin damaging events.” However, the study also notes that the plant has no effect if used at less than 50%.
Astaxanthin is a naturally occurring red pigment molecule that is found in algae, salmon, trout, shrimp, and more and is the most abundant carotenoid in the marine world. It is a source of antioxidants and may be able to protect your skin from sun damage. As this 2014 article notes,
[Astaxanthin] accumulates in the skin, where it makes its way into all skin layers (topical sunscreens can reach only the outermost layers). This can provide potent protection against ultraviolet radiation, the most powerful environmental risk factor for skin cancer.
Astaxanthin supplements are not only sunscreen alternatives; they may offer support for healthy looking skin, and may have other potential benefits for your health.
If you’re not sure about trying these sunscreen alternatives, a mineral sunscreen may be an option for you. These sunscreens are made with zinc oxide and titanium dioxide instead of harsh chemicals, and there is evidence suggesting that these minerals offer protection not just from UVB rays, but also from UVA rays. It’s important to choose the right mineral sunscreen though — look for ones with high levels of active ingredients, since these may offer better support than those with low concentrations.
If you’re not quite ready to commit to a full tube of mineral sunscreen, making the switch to mineral makeup can be a good way to see if this option is right for you. Brands like jane iredale formulate their products with zinc oxide to offer SPF protection, and you can also find this ingredient in their mineral makeup collection.
Make Your Own Sunscreen
If you enjoy DIY projects, here’s an easy recipe for making your own sunscreen! A few notes— make sure to test this recipe on a small patch of skin before applying to your whole body. This sunscreen also has a fairly low SPF, so plan to apply often! (recipe and image via hello glow)
- ¼ cup coconut oil
- ¼ cup shea butter
- 1 tsp. red raspberry seed oil or carrot seed oil
- 2 tbsp. zinc oxide powder
- Melt coconut oil and shea butter together in a double boiler (you can also use a bowl over warm water).
- Whisk in zinc oxide and oil
- Cool mixture in refrigerator 30 minutes.
- Remove from fridge and whip in a stand mixer or by hand until light and fluffy (about 3-5 minutes).
- Store your sunscreen in the fridge in an airtight container and apply as needed (get tips for properly applying sunscreen in this post). Enjoy!
Have you tried a natural sunscreen alternative? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!