Why Derms Say You Should Never, Ever Use Coconut Oil As Sunscreen
Oils can make sun damage so much worse.
In light of the recent concerns about the safety of sunscreen and amid the rise of the wellness boom on social media, where misinformation can spread like rapid-fire, natural oils derived from raspberry seeds, coconuts, carrot seeds, and more are being promoted on Instagram, TikTok, and some corners of the internet as “safe” alternatives to sunscreen. While it’s true that some fruit and vegetable oils do contain low levels of SPF, most of the numbers are wildly inflated — and they should never be used as effective protection against UVB and UVA rays.
“People like to experiment when it comes to skin care, especially as we’ve been seeing a trend of using natural ingredients,” Dr. Dendy Engelman, MD, FACMS, FAAD, a board-certified dermatologist and Mohs surgeon at Shafer Clinic in New York City, tells Bustle over email. “While this can sometimes have exciting and creative results, oftentimes these ‘hacks’ are circulated by people who don’t have a background in dermatology or medicine, and are not educated about the information they are spreading.” She adds that platforms like TikTok allow trends to go viral — remember that chlorophyll water trend? — despite not being backed by science or studies. “Unfortunately, people can really get hurt by trying them,” she says.
This is especially true when it comes to using products like coconut oil as homemade sunscreen: According to Dr. Elizabeth Hale, board-certified dermatologist at CompleteSkinMD in New York, vice president of The Skin Cancer Foundation, and chief medical advisor of Vacation, oils absorb sunlight and heat up the skin (think of it like using oil to cook). “When you apply oil to the skin before sun exposure, you are intensifying the sun’s heat, which leads to burns and skin damage,” she says. “This induces certain mutations, which can lead to skin cancer. It also breaks down collagen and elastin, leading to aging, brown spots, and hyperpigmentation.” In other words, using oils can actually exacerbate sun damage.
What’s more, natural oils lack the UVA and UVB sunscreen filters that must be approved by global health and regulatory agencies, says Sofia Gracia, executive director of product development at Supergoop. Homemade sunscreen is also missing the ingredients necessary to stabilize the formula and ensure that it maintains its efficacy during sun exposure and in the long-term (for instance, while it’s stored). “Natural oils can very quickly oxidize in the presence of air and sunlight — that’s why they often come packed in dark glass bottles — meaning their protective qualities are not long-lasting,” she says. Finally, DIY formulas blended at home without the proper testing using FDA-approved protocols and in accordance with Good Manufacturing Practices are not guaranteed to be free of microorganisms that can be harmful.
Hale calls trends like this “pure hype.” “Not everything that is natural is necessarily better for you or meant to be applied to the skin,” she says. “A classic example here is that poison ivy is a natural, plant-based substance, yet is incredibly irritating and not something you want to be rubbing on your skin. It needs to be understood that just because something is natural does not automatically make it safer.”
She adds that the recent sunscreen controversy, in which several popular aerosol sunscreens were pulled from shelves last month, is no reason to fear store-bought sunscreens. “What needs to be understood is that this was not a sunscreen ingredient problem, it was a manufacturing problem,” she says. “The actual ingredients in the sunscreen are not dangerous or carcinogenic, and this needs to be emphasized so people do not fear sunscreen. I make sure my patients understand that the cause of the recall was really on the manufacturing end, not with the sunscreen ingredients themselves.”
The American Academy of Dermatology Association recommends using a sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30, as that’s the minimum level at which skin is protected from UV rays. In contrast, coconut oil and olive oil have an SPF level of eight, while peppermint oil, lavender oil, and almond oil all have SPF levels of seven, six, and five, respectively. While these oils should never replace sunscreen, they do serve some purpose. “It’s absolutely true that certain oils, such as raspberry and carrot seed oil, contain antioxidants that are beneficial to skin health, but they are not something to ever be used in place of a true sunscreen,” says Hale.
Instead, use an oil along with your SPF to give skin a boost. “You can pair SPF with oils, especially before and after sun exposure. Adding antioxidants to your daily skin care routine is a great way to reduce the effects of premature aging and mitigate any damage that has occurred,” says Engelman. Alternatively, to get the best of both worlds, opt for an oil-based sunscreen. Vacation’s new Chardonnay Oil contains a blend of natural oils derived from grape seed, marula, and shea — plus SPF 30. Supergoop’s Glow Oil, meanwhile, contains an SPF level of 50 along with sunflower seed oil, shea butter, and meadowfoam seed oil.
If you truly want a “natural” sunscreen, research the product first to make sure it has certification from a third party, says Dr. Terry Zickerman, a board-certified physician and CEO of Love Sun Body, which makes natural mineral sunscreens. “When a sunscreen states ‘natural’ or ‘mineral’ sunscreen on the label, this does not mean the sunscreen does not include chemical filters or synthetic ingredients,” he tells Bustle. “Third party certification includes a review of the sunscreens the ingredients (including sourcing and sustainability), formulas, labeling, packaging and manufacturing.”
Though the tanning craze of the 1980s — a time when oils were used to achieve that “glow” — may have had a lasting impact, remember that at the end of the day, there’s no such thing as a healthy tan. “Any tan, whether you get it on the beach, in a tanning bed, or through incidental exposure, represents skin damage,” says Dr. Julie Karen, board-certified dermatologist at CompleteSkinMD and spokesperson for The Skin Cancer Foundation. “About 90 percent of non-melanoma skin cancers and 86 percent of melanomas are associated with exposure to UV radiation from the sun.” She recommends applying two tablespoons (about a shot glass full) of sunscreen to your body about 30 minutes before you go outside, reapplying every two hours or immediately after swimming or sweating. “Forgoing sunscreen is not an option.”
Dr. Dendy Engelman, MD, FACMS, FAAD, board-certified dermatologist and Mohs surgeon at Shafer Clinic
Dr. Elizabeth Hale, board-certified dermatologist at CompleteSkinMD, vice president of The Skin Cancer Foundation, and chief medical advisor of Vacation
Dr. Terry Zickerman, board-certified physician and CEO of Love Sun Body
Dr. Julie Karen, board-certified dermatologist at CompleteSkinMD and spokesperson for The Skin Cancer Foundation
Sofia Gracia, executive director of product development at Supergoop!
Ácsová, A et al. (2021). The real UVB photoprotective efficacy of vegetable oils: in vitro and in vivo studies. Photochem Photobiol Sci. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33721242/