Zero waste sun protection

Spring is here and summer is on the way, so it’s officially sunscreen season. Sunscreen is an important precaution to prevent sun damage and reduce the risk of developing skin cancer. When it comes to sunscreen, one of the trends I’ve seen in the zero waste movement is DIY sunscreen and homemade recipes; a variety of ingredients with relatively low protective factors are added together to have a higher SPF. Most DIY sunscreens are melted together on the stove, and whipped in a mixer to give them a creamier texture.

While zero waste offers a myriad of switches and ways to approaches to our lifestyles, this topic in particular is serious. There is no such thing as a safe suntan. All tanning is sun damage. The CDC claims that as little as 15 minutes of sun exposure can damage the skin, and skin cancer is the most common cancer in the US (x). This is not the choice between using essential oils or ibuprofen to cope with a headache. Our choices with sun protection are too important to take recommendations from internet anecdotes instead of public health organizations and science.

Risks of sun exposure

The risk from UV radiation comes in the form of UVA and UVB rays. UVA activates melanin present in everyone’s skin and will cause a short-lived tan, but is also capable of reaching deeper into the skin and affecting connective tissue and blood vessels under the surface; damage here is what causes skin to lose elasticity and wrinkle from sun damage. UVB, on the other hand, causes skin to produce new melanin, which leads to a much longer lasting tan. It also makes cells create a thicker epidermis (skin); both tanning and thickening of the outer layer of skin are attempts by your body to prevent more sun damage. Large amount of UVB causes sunburn and sunburns make you more likely to develop cancer, not to mention the effects like leathery, dry skin (x). The World Health Organization reiterates that there is no such thing as a healthy tan. Despite your body’s attempts to protect you from sun damage, even a “dark tan on a white skin offers a sun protection factor of between 2 and 4”; none of us would bother applying SPF 4, so skip that base tan as a means to prevent future sunburn.

I suggest this be the summer you learn to watch the UV index where you live. The higher the UV index (1-11), the more damaging the sun and the more quickly you will sunburn outside, due to higher levels of UV radiation. We know that noon is usually the worst time to be out in the sun, but the hours of the day when the sun is strongest depends on the time of year and the region where you live. I’ve worked outside the past three summers and I’ve found that the UV index is moderate-high (meaning our chance of sunburn is high) more hours of the day than we expect. Along with other sun protective measures, you should be aware of the UV index and stay inside or take other precautions whenever possible when the index is anything but low (x). 

What about Vitamin D?

Yes, sunlight does stimulate the production of vitamin D in the body, but that’s no reason to go without sun protection The World Health Organization suggest that as little as five minutes of “casual” sun exposure on your hands, arms or face only two or three times a week is enough to have healthy levels of vitamin D. In other words, walking to the bus, across the parking lot or into your office throughout the week is probably doing as much as you need (x).

Homemade sunscreen

Most homemade sunscreens use zinc oxide, beeswax, shea butter or coconut oil, and essential oils. The claim is typically as follows: add up the SPF factor of these ingredients, and the sum is the SPF of the resulting concoction. These claims are largely unsubstantiated; sunscreen sold in the US is regulated by the FDA because it makes “drug claims” about reducing the risk of skin cancer, and I’ll go out on a limb and say we shouldn’t be DIYing medicine. Some essential oils can even absorb the suns rays and even promote sunburn. Coconut oil does have some protection value, but only blocks about 20% of damaging UV rays compared to the 97% provided by an actual SPF 30 sunscreen. Zinc oxide is an effective mineral sunscreen that provides a physical barrier and deflects UV rays, as opposed to absorbing them as chemical sunscreens do, however the effectiveness of the ingredient when mixed at home is not guaranteed. Zinc oxide is considered to be an acceptable sunscreen ingredient by the FDA and can be easily found in regulated, reliable sunscreen purchased in stores, so there’s no reason to try and make your own.

Some people worry about the safety of chemical ingredients in commercial sunscreens, but the active ingredients used in this country have been cleared by the Food and Drug Administration,” says Joel L. Cohen, M.D., an associate clinical professor of dermatology at the University of Colorado and director of AboutSkin Dermatology in Denver. “What’s unsafe is making homemade sunscreen using ingredients without proven SPF or broad spectrum coverage in formulations that aren’t standardized or verified for their efficacy. That can leave you unprotected from the sun—a known carcinogen.
— Homemade sunscreen is a definite don't, Sally Wadyka

If you’re worried about chemicals in sunscreen, keep in mind that everything around us is made of chemicals. Chemical sunscreen ingredients have been evaluated as safe and are known to reduce the risk of developing skin cancer, which can be fatal. There are some concerns that sunscreen ingredients that have been cleared as safe may be endocrine disruptors (hormone disruptors) as referenced in this Daily Mail article, citing the Environmental Working Group. The group, however, has promoted pseudoscience in the past, such as suggesting a link between vaccines and autism, compiling the inaccurate “dirty dozen” list of products that should always be purchased organic, and 79% of the members of the Society of Toxicology believe that the Environmental Working Group overstate health risk about exposure to chemicals. 

Above all, current information and FDA recommendations tell us that wearing sunscreen is not currently associated with any health risks and is in fact associated with a decreased risk of developing skin cancer. There is no way to verify that homemade sunscreens have the SPF levels they claim to. There is no reason to risk your health or the health of children by applying homemade sunscreen to their skin when there is affordable and tested sunscreen available on the market and no cost advantage to making your own.

Commercial sunscreen

Broad spectrum sunscreens protect against both UVA and UVB rays. SPF values are calculated based on protection from UVB radiation. Beginning at least at 15 SPF, the higher the number, the more protection a sunscreen offers, up to about 50 (x).  The CDC claims people with red or blond hair, blue or green eyes, light skin and/or skin that freckles easily, who have many moles and a personal and/or family history of skin cancer have the greatest risk of developing skin cancer. Regardless of these traits, all exposure to UV radiation (from the sun or tanning beds) increases your risk for skin cancer. Choose a broad spectrum sunscreen (not all sunscreens are broad spectrum) to protect against both kinds of UV radiation, and increase the amount of time you can remain in the sun without getting sunburned. Consumer Reports has found that mineral sunscreens don’t tend to perform as well as chemical sunscreens, but according to the Skin Cancer Foundation, the two most common mineral sunscreen ingredients (titanium dioxide and zinc oxide) can provide broad spectrum protection when combined.

Sunscreen should be used on the parts of the body that must be exposed, but according to the World Health Organization, “sunscreen should never be used to prolong the duration of sun exposure.”Consumer Reports also claims that one severe sunburn can increase your risk of developing skin cancer, and cite that one person in the US dies each hour from melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer.

Are sunscreen INGREDIENTS dangerous?

The FDA takes the stance that, “the public should continue to use sunscreens with other sun protective measures.” There simply is not consensus that sunscreens are unsafe to use, and until there is further data it makes the most sense to continue using broad spectrum sunscreen as part of your sun protection strategies with protective clothing, seeking shade, and sunglasses to help prevent cancer.

Zero waste sun protection


Like with anything around your health like medication, the plastic packaging is not important. There are more important things to do than avoid every plastic container that comes your way, and sometimes those containers hold important things like broad spectrum sunscreen. Your health, of course, comes first. As with any necessary wasteful packaging, you can reduce your waste by purchasing the largest container available. Not too big, though, because sunscreen does expire. I want to emphasize again that broad spectrum sunscreen is one of the best protections available against sun damage, and if you choose to skip sunscreen or DIY something untested and not reliable to avoid plastic packaging, there would still be waste in the form of your health as you consciously risk exposure to a known carcinogen.

If you still wish to reduce your use of sunscreen for whatever reason, stay inside. If you must go outside, wear as much protective clothing as possible.

Across the board, the top recommendation for preventing sunburn and sun damage to the skin is to limit sun exposure. From the FDA:

Some key sun safety tips include:

  • Limit time in the sun, especially between the hours of 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., when the sun’s rays are most intense.

  • Wear clothing to cover skin exposed to the sun, such as long-sleeved shirts, pants, sunglasses, and broad-brimmed hats.

  • Use broad spectrum sunscreens with SPF values of 15 or higher regularly and as directed.

  • Reapply sunscreen at least every two hours, and more often if you're sweating or jumping in and out of the water. (x)

Physical coverings

The best way to reduce your chance of skin damage is, of course, to not go out in the sun. Preventing sun exposure to your skin is generally recommended. Seeking shade is effective as well, but even in shade it’s still best to use other kinds of sun protection like clothes and sunscreen. Clothing is reusable (very zero waste), and purchasing secondhand clothes in tight weaves or dark colors can further reduce your impact when compared to purchasing new clothes.

Tightly woven fabric best protects your skin. Light or sheer fabrics do much less to protect your skin from the sun than heavier weave fabrics, as do dark colors. These fabrics and color shades are not as popular in summer, but we can choose to wear them on days we know we will spend a lot of time in the sun, find other solutions like tightly woven lighter colors, and stay cool by limiting time in the heat (x).

From the Skin Cancer Foundation :

“Most fibers naturally absorb some UV radiation, and some have elastic threads that pull the fibers tightly together, reducing the spaces between the holes.  Synthetic fibers such as polyester, lycra, nylon, and acrylic are more protective than bleached cottons, and shiny or lustrous semi-synthetic fabrics like rayon reflect more UV than do matte ones, such as linen, which tend to absorb rather than reflect UV.”

Hats should have wide brims and also be made of a tightly woven fabric. The CDC warns against relying on loosely woven straw hats, which can let in a significant amount of sunlight through holes. There are also UPF (ultraviolet protection factor) clothes, which are rated for their sun protection similarly to sunscreen; while all coverings provide some degree of protection, these clothes can give you a more exact idea of the protection they provide. Synthetic fabrics tend to provide the best protection and lightweight synthetic clothes are pretty easy to find secondhand, such as workout gear., so you might find it’s a good option to purchase this and use it like sun-safe clothing. Regardless, any part of you getting a lot of sun exposure, especially during hours when the UV index is high, should have sunscreen applied.It’s also important to protect your eyes from sun damage, and the CDC suggests wearing sunglasses, which can also help prevent the development of cataracts in your eyes.

Sunscreen is not a part of your life to DIY to avoid plastic waste. Taking care of your health and appropriate precautions to avoid sunburn and sun damage are simple and can reduce your risk of developing skin cancer. Happy zero wasting, and wishing you fair weather this sunscreen season!