The benefits of coconut oil and other plant oils are seemingly endless when you’re trying to live naturally. Some studies have even shown that certain oils, including olive and coconut oil, can protect against sun damage. So in the era of DIY, why shouldn’t you use just oil as natural sunscreen? Here’s how we see it.
Oils Often Have Low SPF Values
Oils from coconuts, almonds and even lavender have been shown to offer a natural SPF. In other words, they absorb a percentage of the sun’s radiation and prevent some of the damage it might cause. Because of this, some naturalists claim you can slather on coconut oil in preparation for a day in the sun. But according to recommendations from health organizations, the SPF levels of most oils aren’t high enough to adequately protect against harmful UV radiation.i
For reference, here are some of the higher SPF values of oils according to a particular study:
- Coconut Oil: 8
- Olive Oil: 8
- Peppermint Oil: 7
- Lavender Oil: 6
- Almond Oil: 5
This might seem pretty good for natural oils—and it is!—but it isn’t enough to adequately protect you during sun exposure. In fact, at SPF 8, coconut oil and olive oil only absorb about 20% of UV rays!ii
Because products with low SPF provide little coverage, the FDAiii and EWGiv recommend using sunscreen with a minimum SPF of 15. (The American Cancer Society and the American Academy of Dermatology go even further. They recommend sunscreen with an SPF rating of at least 30!) The FDA even requires products below SPF 15 to contain a warning stating they have not been shown to prevent skin cancer or early skin aging. Since many oils fall well below that number, using just oil as natural sunscreen won’t provide the protection you really need.
The SPF of Oils Can Be Inconsistent
Without performing a lab test, there isn’t a good way to know a product’s actual SPF value. For this reason, FDA regulations require the SPF level of every batch of marketed sunscreen to be tested. However, since natural oils aren’t marketed as sunscreen, they don’t go through that testing.
Even with higher SPF oils, like wheat germ oil, it’s hard to know how much protection you’re actually getting. The oil quality can vary between brands and even batches. So while some sources quote specific SPF values for oils, others list wide ranges. Coconut oil, for example, is sometimes said to range between 2 and 8! That’s a big margin of error.
Another study identifies even more factors that can change an oil’s SPF value. For starters, perspiration and water can easily dilute the oil concentration. Additionally, an oil’s interaction with other substances—even with the skin—can impact its ability to absorb UV rays. All of this makes using oil as natural sunscreen a relatively unreliable mode of protection.
Consider Both UVA and UVB Coverage
According to EWG, an SPF value only signals a product’s ability to protect against UVB rays. That means harmful UVA rays, which penetrate deep into the skin and cause DNA damage and premature aging, are sometimes not accounted for.
This is a problem because UVA rays make up a huge portion of our sun exposure! While our atmosphere absorbs approximately 90% of UVB rays, damage to the ozone layer prevents it from absorbing hardly any UVA rays.v For this reason, there are approximately 500 times more UVA rays reaching the earth’s surface than UVB.vi We think that warrants protection!
Experts now recommend products with broad-spectrum coverage, meaning products that protect against both UVA and UVB rays. However, since testing on natural oils in this area is limited, we can’t know if they offer any protection against UVA rays. In fact, the few available studies on oils’ ability to absorb UV rays only experimented in the UVB range.
Red raspberry seed oil provides a great example. While it’s said to have an SPF rating as high as titanium dioxide’s, it has not been shown to protect against UVA rays. We pair titanium with UVA-blocking zinc for safe, broad spectrum coverage. However, there haven’t been any studies showing that oils can provide the same protection.
Using Oil as Natural Sunscreen Alone Is an Inadequate Means of UV Protection
Everybody loves luxurious ingredients like coconut oil and almond oil, and for good reason! These ingredients offer wonderful skin benefits and offer antibacterial properties. Still, results from the few studies available show that using oil as natural sunscreen doesn’t meet health professionals’ recommendations for adequate sun protection.
At Goddess Garden, we understand wanting to do things as naturally as possible. That’s why we’ve created sunscreen formulas with gentle minerals and nourishing botanical ingredients. In fact, many of our sunscreen formulas contain coconut oil and others said to provide SPF. They nourish the skin and add to the texture and overall user experience of our sunscreens. But we’ll leave the heavy lifting of UV ray protection to titanium and zinc!
[i] Gause, S. and A Chauhan. “UV-blocking potential of oils and juices.” Int J Cosmet Sci. 2016 Aug;38(4):354-63. doi: 10.1111/ics.12296. Epub 2016 Jan 29.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26610885
[ii] Korac, Radava R. and Kapil M. Khambholja. “Potential of herbs in skin protection from ultraviolet radiation.” Pharmacogn Rev. 2011 Jul-Dec; 5(10): 164–173.
doi: 10.4103/0973-7847.91114. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3263051/
[iii] U.S. Food and Drug Administration. “Tips to Stay Safe in the Sun: From Sunscreen to Sunglasses.” May 23, 2018. https://www.fda.gov/ForConsumers/ConsumerUpdates/ucm049090.htm
[iv] EWG. “How to pick a good sunscreen.” 2015. https://www.ewg.org/sunsafety/tips-how-to-pick-a-good-sunscreen.php
[v] Rai, Reena, Sekar C Shanmuga, and CR Srinivas. “Update on Photoprotection.” Indian J Dermatol. 2012 Sep-Oct; 57(5): 335–342.
doi: 10.4103/0019-5154.100472. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3482794/
[vi] University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics. “What is the Difference Between UVA and UVB Rays?” April, 2018. https://uihc.org/health-topics/what-difference-between-uva-and-uvb-rays