Warmer temperatures have once again brought on the summer fun of beach and pool outings, camping, and many other outdoor activities. For some of us that means it is time to purchase new sunscreen to protect our families skin from the sun. For others, they look online for DIY sunscreen recipes in hopes of protecting themselves. Many others still, stumble upon sites or social media platforms where individuals tout SPF found in essential oils and other natural oils like coconut.
With so much information available on Google, how do we know for sure how much protection we are really getting using anything that isn't made in a lab? Sadly, we can't and much of the information regarding SPF in DIY recipes being shared is completely mythical as I will explain. In regards to the claims that essential oils have SPF value, we will need to look at things a little closer.
What is SPF?
SPF stands for sun protection factor. The SPF value for any sunscreen or sun protectant indicates the level of protection provided in preventing sunburns1. In order to name a product as having a specific SPF or have “broad spectrum” claims, the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) requires that said product be tested. You see, sunscreen is in fact considered a drug and is regulated as such. Cosmetics that are dual purpose to include SPF have to undergo the same testing as well2.
The definition of a drug is that which is any substance or therapeutic agent, other than food, used in the prevention, diagnosis, alleviation, treatment, or cure of disease. The reason the FDA regulates and considers sunscreens as drugs is due to the fact that they are used as sunburn and cancer preventatives. To be clear, a sunburn; like cancer; is a medical diagnosis that sunscreens are used to prevent from occurring.
While there are many natural oils that may have a small percentage of SPF, those natural oils used alone still do not offer enough protection to prevent any reddening. Even using multiple ingredients in formulations can and will react differently to the other and have a potential to negate any assumed SPF prior to formulation. Only rigorous testing would provide knowledge of what the actual broad spectrum SPF is. Formula Botanica recently published an article explaining more of this information3.
For more information on FDA requirements regarding SPF, visit their website reference below4.
Essential oils and SPF
While there are several articles available that discuss SPF with natural oils5,6, there is only one that event mentions any essential oil7. In the essential oil article, the spf value that is mentioned is based on the end product formulation that they were studying. No SPF value was given or studied for the essential oil on its own.
The bottom line is that essential oils do not offer enough sun protection factor to use alone. There is not any current research that shows that they do. Robert Tisserand weighed in on this a few years ago as well mentioning that essential oils may have very low SPF results in vitro, but those results do not translate to humans the same8. Essential oils are used in cosmetic formulations when making sunscreens only for aroma if that. They are not recognized as drugs and cannot have any SPF claims as such.
It may be safe to assume that there are no studies for essential oils and SPF for a few reasons. Essential oils are plant based materials that are made of many different chemical constituents. Due to the ever changing environment that the plants are grown in, these chemical constituents percentages within essential oils can and do change from harvest to harvest and batch to batch. With such a varying amount of information for each type of essential oil, any studies regarding SPF would cost millions. This alone is reason for the research community to not invest in any SPF study for essential oils.
Where did this notion of essential oils having SPF come from?
It is suspected that a large multi-level marketing (MLM) company started this information in order to garner more sales during warmer periods as a marketing tactic for the representatives. After some bogus claims surrounding Carrot Seed essential oil in 2014, Gabriel Mojay wrote a brief post regarding this and referenced specific articles verifying that Carrot Seed essentials oil does not provide any applicable SPF9.
Even today, there are representatives of MLM companies still touting this information in addition to other unsafe methods of use. Remember SPF is considered a drug. Touting essential oils as having SPF and telling others to use them as such is not only against FDA regulations, but could result in disastrous consequences for representatives. An example of a consequence could potentially include a civil suit being filed.
A few closing notes:
With all of the hype surrounding essential oils as well as trying to live a greener lifestyle, we can’t forget that we do have regulations in place for a reason. While some view regulating bodies like the FDA as an impeding body of regulators dead set on torturing those of us interested in living a green lifestyle, they in fact protect us from ourselves and others that would make a quick dollar off of us.
If you happen to find yourself in a situation where someone is providing unsafe recipes or advising that it is safe to layer essential oils undiluted for SPF, please for your and your family’s safety, do not follow them. Using DIY aromatherapy recipes and essential oils without the proper guidance of a qualified aromatherapist will not provide you with what you seek. Phototoxicity reactions, irritations, and other serious issues like sensitization can occur due to the use of this serious misinformation.
Formulations of sunscreens are best left to those master formulators who have special equipment is needed to ensure the ingredients providing SPF are actually mixed appropriately for even application. Not to mention the requirement for testing that the FDA mandates.
There are greener options now available in retail outlets to meet the demand of our lifestyle. Wouldn’t you rather trust a product that has gone through rigorous testing on your baby, children, or yourself over claims by someone selling a product?
Next time you find yourself in a situation where someone is telling others that essential oils do offer SPF, please share this information. Sharing facts never hurt anyone.
Using essential oils unsafely has.
5 Jarzycka, Anna, Agnieszka Lewinska, Roman Gancarz, and Kazimiera A. Wilk. "Ssessment of Extracts of Helichrysum Arenarium, Crataegus Monogyna, Sambucus Nigra in Photoprotective UVA and UVB; Photostability in Cosmetic Emulsions." Science Direct. Journal of Photochemistry and Photobiology B: Biology, Nov. 2013. Web. 8 June 2016.
6 Oomah, B. Dave, Stephanie Ladet, David V. Godfrey, Jun Liang, and Benoit Girard. "Characteristics of Raspberry (Rubus Idaeus L.) Seed Oil." Science Direct. Food Chemistry, May 2000. Web. 8 June 2016.
7 Mishra, Ak, A. Mishra, and P. Chattopadhyay. "Assessment of In Vitro Sun Protection Factor of Calendula Officinalis L. (Asteraceae) Essential Oil Formulation." NCBI. Journal of Young Pharmacists, Jan. 2012. Web. 8 June 2012.