It's summer time! Well, we live in Germany, and summers here last about a week. Today I left the house without a jacket, and boy, did I regret it... It is still my favorite season of the year because a) I don't have hay fever in summer, so I don't have to worry about dying in an asthma attack, which is a definite plus, b) I don't have to sleep with long sleeves, one electric blanket plus four additional blankets weighing down on me, and c)
it rains less it rains more in the summer, but at least there are fewer rainy days.
I even got to wear my flip flops three times this year, which beats last year's summer, whoo! Best week of the year!
So when people ask me about zero waste sun protection I'm always like: "Oh, you going on vacation somewhere warm?"
Is there a complete zero waste or at least plastic-free option for sun protection?
I do know Béa Johnson did manage to find sunscreen in bulk at a bulk store in San Francisco IF I remember correctly. But most of us probably will not have access to sunscreen sold in bulk.
You can use natural oils for very light exposure, but I will tell you in a moment, why you should not rely on the very attractive option of using natural oils if you intend to sunbathe!
In my opinion, mineral-based sunscreen is still the most reliable sun protection. You can make it yourself or keep using regular sunscreen.
If you don't want to make your own (it's easy though if you can get the ingredients, which can be tricky and far from zero waste), and you worry about store-bought sunscreen because of all the potentially harmful ingredients, and you want to at least reduce the plastic that comes with it – I have an organic, natural option for you, which regrettably is not vegan because it contains beeswax, sighs. Seems like you can't have it all.
Apart from that, the only truly zero waste method is to limit your exposure to direct sunlight, stay in the shades, wear a cap or hat, and remember that clothes absorb and shield from UV rays too.
What I do
Personally, even in our pre-zero-waste days I more or less stuck to not exposing myself to direct sunlight for too long (aka staying in the shades) and wearing a cap. Because we spent the last couple of summers in Germany, and because of my skin type (I have only ever gotten one sunburn in my entire life), that was plenty enough for me. I didn't do this to avoid applying sunscreen though. I did because I had had heatstrokes when I wasn't careful.
I basically haven't used sunscreen in the past four years, but I have borrowed some, when we were outside for longer than expected, or when my in-laws insisted on sitting in the sun instead of the shades, and yes, if somebody I was there with happened to have some on them, I would ask them for a dab. But that rarely happens.
And yes, if we were to go on summer vacation somewhere beachy, I would definitely buy sunscreen or the ingredients to make my own. Believe it or not, I do care about my skin (I daresay my skin is pretty decent for a 33 year old), and even without a sun burn overexposure to UV rays are harmful!
There are some oils that are said to have an SPF. The internet is full of blogs promoting the use of natural oils, and it does look very good on paper (or is it on screen for blogs?), too.
Here is what you will find:
|Red raspberry seed oil||30-40|
|Carrot seed oil||20-30|
|Non GMO soybean oil||~ 10|
|Sesame seed oil||4-8|
Great, I thought, I'll just try to get my hands on some raspberry or carrot seed oil!
Turned out it wasn't as easy as I thought it would be. I just couldn't get any of it in the stores.
I decided to do some more research before I would actually order some online. When I dug deeper, I found some things about natural oils that weren't as reassuring...
More research needs to be done on red raspberry seed oil
When it comes to red raspberry seed oil, the high SPF of 30-40 is very tempting. However, it all boils down to one study from 2000, which did confirm the shielding properties in laboratory tests:
[R]aspberry seed oil may act as a broad spectrum UV protectant and provide protection against both UV-A, an exogenous origin of oxidative stress to the skin, and UV-B. The optical transmission of raspberry seed oil, especially in the UV range (290±400 nm) was comparable to that of titanium dioxide preparations with sun protection factor for UVB (SPF) and protection factor for UV-A (PFA) values between 28±50 and 6.75±7.5"
However, the study was actually about the general properties of raspberry seed oil, to see if it was worth extracting it to put the byproduct of the raspberry juice production to good use. It only said raspberry seed oil has the "potential for use as a broad spectrum UV protectant". In order to be sure it does when applied on the skin, further studies are required, because there are questions like: What happens when the skin absorbs the oil? Does it need to stay ON the skin to shield from UV rays (which is what mineral-based sunblock does)? What layer thickness is necessary to provide sufficient sun protection? Is it water resistant?
Sadly, it seems like nobody has bothered to conduct further studies, even though it has been patented for cosmetic use.
Masla from the blog Masla's Skin Care decided to put raspberry seed oil to the test. She applied some on her face and neck and went out for an 1.5 - 2 hour walk in the botanical garden, where she stayed in the shade most of the time. She posted a photo of her skin afterwards, showing redness compared to her unexposed cleavage. But of course this is only one very individual test. Still, I found it quite interesting.
My personal opinion: If I found it in bulk or could get my hands on an almost plastic-free bottle (always watch out for the lid and the label), I would probably use it, since the sun in Germany isn't very aggressive, I don't sunbathe, and I always watch out to not overexpose my skin to the sun anyway. However, I definitely would not rely on it for children or for outdoor activities like hiking, playing sports, going for a long run, or to spend a day at the beach.
Carrot seed oil might or might not have any SPF properties
The reason carrot seed oil is said to have a high SPF is because this study, published in the “Pharmacognosy Magazine” in 2009, stated that products containing carrot (just carrot, NOT carrot seed oil) have a natural SPF of 38-40.
In the study, two products containing "carrot" showed this high SPF. However, in both cases "carrot" was listed among other "herbs" like symplocos, wheat germ (1st product), sandel wood, aloe vera, honey, and sunflower (2nd product). So it might not have been the "carrot". And how on earth people derived "carrot seed oil" from "carrot" I have no idea.
The very same study also states: "It is complicated science with herbal cosmetics because specific constituent responsible for the claimed effects can not be identified."
I found another study examining herbal extracts (not oils!), and it had "carrot" on their list! They only look at UV-B and the result is, that carrot extract only had an SPF of 1.34! Coconut extract had the highest SPF with 7.38.
For more on the carrot seed oil study and "busted sunscreen myths" I do recommend this article by Gwen from Gwen's Nest.
No reliable UV-A and/or UV-B protection?
According to the same study, the UV-A protection properties of most vegetable oils are not very stable:
However, the photostability of the sunscreen in the UV-A range is not always adequate. Most sunscreens offer good protection against UV-B while the UV-A photostability of some products decreases substantially during UV exposure."
Another study only looked at the UV-B protection properties, since it is said that UV-B causes the most damage to the skin. They examined coconut oil, neem oil, sesame oil, castor oil, groundnut oil, cod liver oil, mustard oil, and "chicken oil" ("oil extracted from chicken" is the explanation in the study, yes, I'm serious). They found that said "chicken oil" showed the maximum absorbtion.
most of the vegetable oils show poor absorption of UV radiations, but chicken oil, neem oil, and castor oil show considerably high absorption rate. The wonderful absorption, nearly 75%, of chicken oil is highly interesting. This suggests that the oil may be used for prevention of UV radiation problems on human skin."
However, an absorption of 75% is only equivalent to SPF 4!
Yet another study aimed to determine the SPF of herbal oils in vitro, which is a method tested in the lab, not under realistic conditions. And again, without considering UV-A.
|Sesame seed oil||1.8|
Click here for the full table.
These values to align more or less with the ones you can find on many blogs in the internet. However, they did not test red raspberry or carrot seed oil. And a proper sun protection would have to protect your skin from exposure to all UV-B as well as UV-A rays, and it definitely should not "decreases substantially during UV exposure." Just saying.
The sunscreen you buy in the store is mineral-based, which means it contains either zinc oxide or titanium oxide. They sit on your skin rather than get absorbed into your skin and absorb and scatter UV rays.
Making your own
You can also make your own sunscreen by adding either of these components to your preferred vegetable oil. Each percent of zinc or titanium oxide you add to your oil adds SPF 2. So if your mixture is 10% zinc oxide and 90% vegetable oil you get SPF 20.
If you are lucky, you will be able to get zinc oxide in a pharmacy. But you will most probably have to order it online, and as far as I could find out, it usually comes in plastic packaging, and of course it would have to be shipped to you.
Organic, almost plastic-free sunscreen
A reader of mine suggested Butterbean Organics sunscreen to me as an alternative for people who do not really feel like making their own products, and also told me it can be ordered online at monomeer.de. Monomeer is a Germany-based plastic-free online store, and actually one of only two online stores I feel comfortable to order from, because a) in the item description you will also find info on how the product is packaged, if for example the label is plastic, and how it arrived in their store (e.g. cardboard box but plastic tape, corn starch peanuts), and b) they have great customer service so you can ask for things like: "Please use a reused box and cushioning for my package."
I have ordered from them before (ans some of my friends still owe me the money for what I ordered for them!), so I contacted them. And indeed, they were so kind to send me the stick and the cream to test, which is great, because I do not feel comfortable recommending things I haven't even seen, smelled, touched, tried.
Both sunscreens are SPF 30 and use non-nano zinc oxide as active ingredient.
The sunscreen comes either in a metal box with a plastic thread inside, or as stick with in a cardboard roll.
In both cases, the label is plastic.
It's a "peel here" label, not too sure it's actually necessary 😕...
It is organic and basically both sunscreens are made from the same ingredients: coconut oil, Fairtrade shea butter, beeswax, olive fruit, jojoba oil, vitamin D, and zinc oxide. The stick contains more beeswax than the cream, and has sunflower seed oil.
Since it contains beeswax, it is NOT vegan, but so far, it is the most plastic-free and reliable sunscreen option I have been able to find, with organic ingredients and all.
The sunscreen has been sitting in my home for a week now, but it was always cold and rainy so I didn't get a chance to test it. Yesterday was the day! It was a sunny, summery day, and I spend a lot of time outside. I put the sunscreen (the cream) on my face, and I could definitely tell it was sunscreen because it made my face look paler. I could also tell that it was sitting on my face as opposed to being absorbed.
I liked the smell. It had nothing artificial, which is a big plus in my book! Growing up with very sensitive skin and atopic dermatitis, a strong perfume smell always puts me off and makes my skin itchy just by smelling it. I could definitely make out beeswax and jojoba.
When it comes to the most important aspect, the sun protection properties, I am afraid I can only tell you that my skin was fine at the end of the day, even though I was out in the sun longer than I usually would have been, since we decided to walk to our appointments rather than taking public transportation.
However, I am not somebody who ever gets sunburnt in this latitude anyway. Before I get a sunburn I get a heatstroke and get moved into the shades 😜. I do tan very easily though, and my arms (which I kept sunscreen-free for reference) did get noticeably darker, whereas my face doesn't look too different to me.
This is my first attempt at making a flowchart, and I don't draw, I don't illustrate, and hell, I don't even doodle! So this looks a bit awkward because I just scribbled it on a piece of (reused) paper and scanned it with my phone. Still, I hope it helps you lot and I wanted to summerize it in a more visual way because I felt all my detailed explanations might have been more confusing than helpful 😅.
A friendly reminder
Even when you do apply sunscreen, don't stay out in the sun too long and remember that re-applying sunscreen only helps maintaining the sun protection, but does NOT prolong it! Now got outside and have fun doing whatever you were about to do 😁!
Tammy Logan (Gippsland Unwrapped) says
Great research and I love the flow chart at the end, well done 🙂
Rebekah Jaunty says
Wow, thank you for being so thorough!
Hey, Lush has unpacked sunscreen blocks (SPF 30) and lotions (SPF 10)! I guess they even have a sunscreen powder. Much love! 🙂
Thanks so much for sharing Shia. Great blog! You're an inspiration!