Lifestyle blogs are very good at cultivating domestic inadequacy, and spawning questions you probably never thought you’d ask yourself, like Should I be making my own sunscreen? Does slathering myself in raspberry seeds count as SPF? And even more weirdly, Will eating certain vegetables protect me from getting burned? Many a Pinterest infographic suggests that mixing raspberry seed and carrot seed oils with zinc-oxide powder and coconut oil will result in an effective and toxin-free sunscreen. Some even suggest that eating antioxidant-rich foods will protect you against the sun “from the inside.” What is the truth?
If you ask the bloggers, carrot seed oil has an SPF of 35 to 40. Or is it 38 to 40? Raspberry seed oil, they allege, offers somewhere between 25 and 28 to 50. Aromatherapy experts even believe that fatty oils (a.k.a. carrier oils) have some sun protection.
But slathering yourself in carrot cake will not provide UV protection. Certain botanicals may offer some protection against ultraviolet light, but this doesn’t mean you should go buy a bunch of ingredients and play chemist, says Joshua Zeichner, M.D., the director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at the Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. Although some studies claim that raspberry seed oil or essential oils absorb some UV light, they were conducted in petri dishes using light meters — a far cry from the tests that sunscreen manufacturers must conduct to prove the SPF claims on their labels. Rigorous sunscreen trials involve putting actual humans under UV lamps to see how quickly they burn, then repeating the test 15 minutes after sunscreen is applied to their backs.
“In theory or in the lab, an oil may give [some] protection, but in the real world, you’re applying it to the skin with other ingredients and you’re sweating and it’s exposed to UV light — the conditions are very different,” says Dr. Zeichner. “It may not be stable.” Essentially, the UV protection of botanicals is unproven. And if you’re trying to made “homemade” sunscreens, they simply aren’t reliable because the ingredients aren’t subject to the same regulations and testing that store-bought sunscreen is, Dr. Zeichner says. You really don’t know the true SPF rating of the bottle of homemade sunscreen oil you purchased on Etsy, or how long it will last. Plus, the oil or zinc-oxide powder from your sunscreen concoction may not be evenly spread through the mixture, which could result in patchy protection and damaging sunburns.
As to the other internet claims claims that eating certain foods can boost your sun protection and even fight sun damage, it’s hyperbole. There is some data showing that foods rich in antioxidants can help improve the body’s own antioxidant defenses, which may be useful in minimizing damage from UV light, Dr. Zeichner says. Namely, research suggests there’s some benefit from the antioxidants vitamin C in citrus, genistein from soy, and lycopene, which is found in foods like tomatoes, watermelon, and papaya. (A note of caution: Foods rich in vitamin A could actually make you more sensitive to the sun, so go easy on the carrots.) Don’t rely on your diet to cure any sun-related ills. So, no, you may not give yourself a pass on reapplying because you brought oranges to the beach.
“A healthy diet can help give the skin the building blocks that it needs to function properly, but that should be in addition to sun-safe behaviors like wearing sunscreen, seeking shade during peak hours, and wearing hats and glasses,” he says. “It’s more of a safety net to minimize collateral damage or any damage that occurs despite your best efforts at sun protection.”
Overall, if you’d really prefer a natural option, then look for sunscreens with physical blockers zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide as the active ingredients. (These are mineral blocks which reflect light, rather than chemical blocks which absorb UV rays.)
If you like your skin and don’t want to deal with skin cancer or premature wrinkling, don’t mess with DIY sunscreen and don’t expect that your impressive fruit and veggie intake will save you. “We have great ways of protecting ourselves from that exposure and I recommend that you use the products that are commercially available,” says Zeichner.
Get that sunscreen — perhaps the fun, new gel kind — and swathe yourself in it.