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The Trouble With Making Your Own Sunscreen

December 30, 2012

Yes I have gone sunscreen crazy a little over the last week or so but it is for a good reason. It’s hot here in Australialand right now, hot, UV rich and waaaay too long between pay checks to go buy a $20 bottle of SPF 30 something for some people.  That and the fact that there are a growing number of people for whom consumer SPF 30 plus sunscreen no longer cuts the mustard – too many chemicals, what about nanoparticles,  too much synthetic perfume,  allergic to the preservatives and so on.

So is home-made sunscreen possible?

I would strongly advise against trying and that’s not because I have shares in a sunscreen company because I don’t.  It’s hard. Very hard. It’s expensive and hard and more importantly sunscreens are not just any old cosmetic, they might just save your skin.

The googlesphere is jam-packed full with recipes teaching you how to make your own homemade sunscreen.  A typical recipe looks something like this:

To make 100g

25g of Zinc Oxide powder

50g Shea Butter

10g Jojoba Oil

2g beeswax

3g Cocoa Butter

10g Olive Butter.

Mix it all up and voila, your own sunscreen and as Zinc Oxide gives somewhere between 1-1.5 SPF unit per % added you have a product with an SPF of between 25-35. Amazeballs.

Only you probably don’t.

Having worked with zinc oxide sunscreens for the last three years with varying success (and lots of failures) I can assure you that it is a pig of an ingredient being both difficult to blend into a base and keep dispersed in said base.  Being a strongly charged particle it tends to migrate towards its self and form big clumps at every available opportunity (think of it like a super charged magnet that it sitting just shy of the pulling ground of a complimentary magnetic item). It doesn’t take much before whoooooosh, it’s moved and attached its self to its neighbour to form a duo that is TWICE AS STRONG AS IT WAS WHEN ALOOOOOOONE.  You can easily see what will happen next. It’s chemical carnage.

But you can’t necessarily see that and as I found to my detriment a couple of years ago, ignorance is bliss. Knowledge is pain.

I started off in 2009 by merrily mixing my zinc oxide into a base, not really aware of how bad it could get and enjoying each little win like I was some genius in a world filled with losers who just didn’t see what I saw.  I wondered why everyone from within the industry shied away from this type of formula, why they refused to take on this work and why they looked at me with that “oh no you haven’t” look when I told them about my happy successes.  I was happy because my creations had not yet been tested.

But then came the day of reckoning.  I took them to the sunscreen testing lab and they failed.

I had various goes at testing my ‘babies’ SPF’s.  Those that I expected would give me an easy 30 came in at a dismal 12,  those that were a sure 15 were only a 7 and one that looked amazing and a sure-fire 35 ish read only 8 on the SPF scale.  Epic failures all and what was worse was that this was all my own work.  In the early days I wasn’t really doing this for customers, I was just teaching myself some bits and pieces.  Trying it on for size and investing in my future.  Well, at $700 ish a pop for the basic stuff sunscreen testing is NOT something that you want to keep getting wrong and each failure hit me like a brick. And keep in mind that by this stage I thought I was onto a good thing and knew what I was doing – I won’t even go there with the tens of formulation tweaks that I tried and subsequently failed at.

One thing that I realised early on was that just because you put zinc in, it doesn’t mean that it stays sitting in the formula in a useful place.  A good sunscreen has to cover the skin evenly like a good coat of paint and unfortunately for zinc users, that chemical prefers to clump together giving you dense lumpy areas that you may or may not be able to see with the naked eye and then empty wasteland craters all of which can act as lenses for sunlight and actually magnify the rays as they come through.

badly clumped zinc sunscreen

Yes it is true, adding lots of zinc to your product COULD leave you with a hole infested sun magnifying glass rather than a nice, uniform sunscreen. Ouch!

Then came some progress.  I read a bit more, observed a little closer and tweaked a few techniques until something started to stick.  My reported SPF’s were still a bit lower than I wanted but we were on the right track, no zinc was cottage cheesing and the product was feeling good on the skin.  But that was over one year and several thousands of dollars worth of investment in time, materials and testing later and that was BEFORE we started trying to change preservative systems, add different actives, change emulsifiers and add perfumes.  Another thing I’ve learned with zinc only sunscreens is that every little change is a big deal and can make a big difference. And that’s where I’m up to today with a few ideas that work and a few that didn’t.

I’m not saying that I’m a genius and if I can’t do it you must be made to think that you can, honestly I’m not.   What I am saying that even with all of my friends in the right places, chemical resources, laboratory equipment and analytical testing experience I still stuffed up a lot before I started to make progress and surely that has to count for something.  I was lucky in as much as nobody was risking their lives with these failed formulations, the only thing being risked was my money at that stage and thankfully that is replaceable.  Our health isn’t always so easy to claw back.

The trouble with making your own sunscreen is that while it looks ever-so-easy from the ingredients list in reality there is a whole chemical dance that has to go on to get these things singing. Now you may just hit the jackpot and come up with a beauty but it is more likely that you won’t so please, please, please be careful and if this is something that you are likely to dish out to babies, your children or your elderly relatives do consider investing in at least one proper SPF test, just to be on the safe side.

Home made sunscreen? In my eyes it is just not worth it unless your home made sunscreen is a nice big hat or burquini :)

32 Comments leave one →
  1. Shopping Doll permalink
    June 18, 2013 2:32 am

    So glad I found this. I’ve been flirting with the idea of making my own sunscreen, and have read a few articles telling me not to, citing various “experts,” but yours is the most convincing as it is based on true personal experience and tangible evidence. I’m disappointed that it can’t safely be done at home, but grateful now that I know better than to put my family at risk. Thank you so much for this.

    • RealizeBeautyEd permalink
      June 18, 2013 8:01 am

      Hi there Shopping Doll,
      Thanks for taking the time to write to me, it is much appreciated. Just wanted to clarify that you can make sunscreen at home in as much as you don’t necessarily need any special equipment BUT you do need to get it properly tested to make sure you aren’t putting your family at risk wearing a sunscreen that is ineffective. Good luck with whatever you choose to do and thanks again for reading.

  2. natluver permalink
    January 22, 2014 2:05 pm

    hi! i stumbled on your blog, its great! i have some qns, wonder if you can help? zinc sunblock is not common here, and if i had them made by a compounding pharmacy, will it have the same problem as you mentioned? or it will be just like those commercially prepared? and does rubbing in several thin layers of the sunblock on my face still provide the right coverage? thanks!!

    • RealizeBeautyEd permalink*
      January 22, 2014 2:14 pm

      Hi there,

      Well that does depend on the experience and testing capacities of your compounding pharmacy. Pharmacy isn’t cosmetic chemistry and while some pharmacists know how to formulate a sunscreen and have a good appreciation of the laws and testing required others wont. Layering a bad product might help a bit but it won’t be pleasant to use and may still not give you enough of an SPF. Sunscreen R&D is expensive and I’d always go with a company that has and continues to test their product or products so as to ensure they remain safe and fit for purpose throughout the shelf life.

      • natluver permalink
        January 22, 2014 5:37 pm

        oic, coz i called them up they say the concentration of zinc oxide and base cream is up to me. once decided, they will ‘make’ it for me… what about application? was confused that some say to rub in the cream to lessen the whitish cast. others say rubbing in removes the cream thus leaving no protection.

      • RealizeBeautyEd permalink*
        January 24, 2014 7:33 am

        It doesn’t sound like they have much experience with this. UV protection and whitening on the skin are not related. I’d be finding another place to get your zinc sun cream made personally.

  3. Deanna permalink
    February 13, 2014 9:56 pm

    This was just what I needed to read before heading off to buy the ingredients!
    Great explanation you know what you are talking about Thanks

  4. Judi Gaytan permalink
    April 18, 2014 6:27 am

    This is an interesting article. Last year I developed a bad allergy to regular sunscreen (skin turns dark red, swells up, itches, stays like that for several weeks, then peels). I’ve tried different sunscreens that are for sensitive skin or that have different combinations of chemicals in them and they all do the same thing to me. Last summer I was desperate for some sunscreen so I could go to the pool, so I used diaper rash ointment (40% zinc oxide) mixed with white icing color (contains titanium dioxide, glycerol and water) and cocoa butter. It didn’t come off in the pool, and I didn’t burn. I reapplied it every hour like I used to do with commercial sunscreen. This year I was planning to order zinc from Amazon so I could try making a sunscreen that didn’t smell like diaper ointment, but it sounds like maybe I’m better off sticking with the diaper ointment since the zinc is already blended into it.

    • RealizeBeautyEd permalink*
      April 18, 2014 6:40 am

      Hi Judi,
      Thanks for writing in and sharing your experience. I am glad that your blend seems to be working for you, not knowing you and your skin type or your behaviour during that test day I can’t comment further on your particular experience. Life being as complex as it is there will always be people who go outside and never burn, never get skin cancer. There will always be people who make their own medicines, creams and balms and live a long, happy and rash free life and there will always be people who react badly to products that have been thoroughly tested and validated. Such is life but my professional opinion and experience shows that on the whole these wins are short lived once the product goes to market. So, if you are experimenting that is your choice but I wouldn’t be selling that blend or promoting it to others any time soon.

      • Judi Gaytan permalink
        April 18, 2014 7:36 am

        Oh, I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone else…it smells too bad for that, and it looks chalky on. I use it for my daughter and myself, because she has the same reaction to regular sunscreen that I have, and we’re both pale with freckles so we burn really easily. I expect now that daily sunscreen use is becoming more widespread and sunscreen is added to so many lotions and cosmetics, more people will become sensitized to it like my daughter and I did. Probably then alternatives with different chemicals will be developed, but until that happens, I’m stuck trying to come up with something I can use.

  5. ChristinaH permalink
    May 10, 2014 2:38 am

    Well then. I typed in “is home made sunscreen with zinc oxide effective”…and here you are! I’m really glad I found this because I had the same nagging question after reading oodles of homemade recipes. It is EXTREMELY important to understand the science behind these things! Just because it’s a creamy goo to the naked eye clearly means nothing. Thanks for actually taking the next steps in the process so that we don’t make the same mistakes and put our health at risk.

    • RealizeBeautyEd permalink*
      May 10, 2014 8:16 am

      Hi Christina,
      I’m very glad that the article helped you. As there are plenty of professional sunscreen brands who have done the testing and meet the expectations of the organic, natural and cost-effective market I really do feel this is one area best left alone. I appreciate the interest and understand the sentiment but really the only sun protection you can make at home is good food, clothing and a solid hat. Oh and plenty of rest to keep your body working right.

  6. NatalieD permalink
    May 31, 2014 8:01 pm

    Thank you for this article! A lot of really great information to think on.. Especially since I was considering making my own sunscreen lotion! Do you have any recommendations for brands of sunscreen that are natural & safe to put on the skin?

    • RealizeBeautyEd permalink*
      June 1, 2014 3:39 pm

      Well I’d say that any brand that has passed SPF testing and is labelled as broad spectrum is going to do the job. There are a few all natural brands that your health food store may stock that you could try, it would depend on where you are located as to what particular brands you might need.

  7. August 4, 2014 2:36 pm

    Great article, BUT really discouraging, as I have recently made a small jar of sunscreen for the first time. However, I’m wondering to myself, which is worse: store-bought, chemical-laden sunscreen that fully covers or homemade sunscreen with some “holes” in its protection?? I know I can purchase natural sunscreens with zinc oxide, but that still leaves me depending on their formulation, which usually includes oils or ingredients that do not work well with my skin (ie. pore clogging). I’m at a loss…

    • RealizeBeautyEd permalink*
      August 4, 2014 11:29 pm

      If you value your skin use a product that has been tested. Zinc is very tricky and while I have been making zinc based formulations for five years I can assure you that getting a good SPF is far from easy. I can understand why people might feel uncomfortable with formulations they haven’t made or ingredients they have no relationship with but I can honestly say that making your own Sunscreen is far more risky. Living amongst a community that likes to make everything themselves due (for some) in part to a mistrust of commercial brands I understand that there will be people who feel that I might just be making this out to be a bigger problem than it is, scaring people into consumerism or that I’m somehow trying to feather my own nest as a formulator. I know that this is far from the truth but can’t influence others and accept that as an industry insider with a background in chemistry I could be viewed as part of the problem. Such is life.

      • August 8, 2014 3:19 pm

        Thanks for the reply. I hope I didn’t come across as viewing you as part of the problem … or anything of the sort. I really appreciate the information you’ve shared about your trial and errors formulating sunscreen. I’m just really bummed to know that my homemade sunscreen may not be as wonderful as I thought. Ignorance is bliss, but I am the type that would rather know!

      • RealizeBeautyEd permalink*
        August 9, 2014 7:56 am

        Not at all! Feedback is welcome and yes ignorance is bliss and that’s fine to a point when you are experimenting on yourself but quite different when you are putting these concoctions on children I guess. Thanks for reading and commenting. It is always most welcome. Amanda x

  8. RealizeBeautyEd permalink
    May 19, 2013 5:38 pm

    I stil work in the cosmetics industry :) I run a busy consultancy and formulating co and yes, zinc is still a pain to work with!

  9. May 20, 2013 3:19 am

    Oh my gosh I’m sorry for the mistake! I will correct it. Also, are you a chemist? I wanted to put that but wasn’t sure. Thanks for the good info, by the way!

  10. RealizeBeautyEd permalink
    May 20, 2013 7:48 am

    It’s no prob :) and yes I am a chemist. I also work closely with a sunscreen testing facility from time to time as this is a major area of interest for me. Glad you are enjoying the blog.

  11. sonizuro@hotmail.com permalink
    January 30, 2014 2:59 am

    could i overuse zinc powder and do something poisonous to my body? I bought powder of ZinkOxid in the pharmacy and mixed it 1/3 with vaseline for mine and daughter skin. It seems to work but i am not sure if I am not giving too much since I could not find anywhere on the net dosage. Thanks for a reply already in advance

  12. RealizeBeautyEd permalink*
    January 30, 2014 5:33 am

    Talk to your pharmacy about that or your doctor. I don’t know what you would need such a cream for. Zinc is allowed for sunscreens in the USA up to 25% and in Europe you can ad as much as you like I think but you would have to get the formula safety assessed. Not sure it would do anything bad but you should check with a health care professional about your situation.

  13. Patience Pecoraro permalink
    June 6, 2014 7:11 am

    I’ve read that zinc oxide and titanium dioxide if inhaled can be dangerous. In addition, I think it important to clarify the health risks and potential hazards of non micronized and micronized zinc?

  14. RealizeBeautyEd permalink*
    June 15, 2014 9:47 am

    Yes of course they are dangerous when inhaled and that risk would be outlined on the MSDS. I thought I’d mentioned risks to the manufacturer but maybe that was in another post….. Much of the sunscreen grade microparticle titanium and zinc is sold as dispersions as they are easier to use and that avoids the risks posed by inhalation but you are right, people should also consider how they are going to mix these things and take precautions. I doubt many people have an extraction cupboard at home.

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