Dangerous DIY Sunscreen Recipes Are Spreading on Pinterest

Misplaced concerns about chemicals in over-the-counter sunscreens are fueling a new problem on social media

Illustration: Joseph Melhuish

In Microprocessing, columnist Angela Lashbrook aims to improve your relationship with technology every week. Microprocessing goes deep on the little things that define your online life today, to give you a better tomorrow.

Everyone’s trying to make a buck on alternative and all-natural remedies these days.

Sephora launched a “Clean at Sephora” category in 2018, aiming to help the increasing number of customers who are afraid of chemicals like parabens and phthalates to find products without them. Consumers are buying vitamins and supplements in record numbers, despite evidence that they’re ineffective for most people. And, of course, vaccine hesitancy is becoming a massive public health concern, with the World Health Organization naming it one of its top 10 biggest risks to global health.

New research, published May 20 in the journal Health Communication, shows how this trend is extending to people’s sunscreen habits — and maybe even putting people at increased risk for skin cancer. The study looked at how people share information about homemade or do-it-yourself sunscreen on Pinterest, and found that nearly 95% of pins about homemade sunscreen portrayed it positively, and a full 68% of the pins recommended recipes for DIY sunscreen that didn’t even work.

Lara McKenzie, a principal investigator at the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children’s Hospital and one of the study’s authors, says she and her co-authors were interested in studying Pinterest specifically because of how many parents use the platform. She says that, as a parent herself, “I understand the movement and wanting to provide the best for your kids and to not give them things that are harmful or dangerous or hazardous,” but that, in fact, relying on homemade sunscreen puts a child more at risk than whatever potential dangers people think lurk in sunscreen chemicals.

“It’s really scary because what’s at risk here at best is a really bad sunburn, but at worst is the possibility of skin cancer in the future, especially if it’s children,” she says. “The number of saves (formerly called “repins,” in which a user “saves” someone else’s pin to their own Pinterest page) for the average Pinterest post are something like 800, and one of the pins in the study was saved more than 21,000 times. This is in the mainstream and it’s popular.”

Screenshots of homemade sunscreen recipes on Pinterest from study

While Pinterest may be a prominent space for sunscreen misinformation to spread, it’s hardly the only place you can find it. Into The Gloss, the beauty blog that launched the massive indie beauty brand Glossier, has a recipe for homemade sunscreen consisting of shea butter, zinc oxide powder, coconut oil, and other oils. (The author is now the executive fashion news editor at British Vogue). The health website Dr. Axe warns that “conventional sunscreen can be full of harmful chemicals and toxins” and that their recipe for homemade sunscreen not only protects the skin from getting “burnt,” but also “nourishes and hydrates your skin with essential vitamins and nutrients.” And the popular wellness blog Wellness Mama claims that “lack of sun exposure is a much bigger problem than too much sun exposure” and advises readers to make their own sunscreen from, again, zinc oxide, coconut oil, olive oil, beeswax, and other ingredients. (One of the Pinterest pins included in the study is a Wellness Mama creation.)

As fun as it is to whip up your own face mask or devise your own bar soap recipe out of oatmeal and essential oils, sunscreen is an entirely different beast. That’s because protecting your skin from both UVA and UVB rays is a precise science that requires more nuance than dumping zinc oxide powder in a cup of coconut oil and calling it a day. Zinc oxide, or titanium dioxide, both of which are physical sunscreen agents commonly used in commercial sunscreens, have to be combined with the other ingredients in exact amounts as well as evenly incorporated throughout the lotion to ensure adequate protection. The likelihood that an unpracticed arts and crafts enthusiast will be able to achieve that, even with a decent recipe, is slim.

Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-approved sunscreens, says McKenzie, “are tested for efficacy and effectiveness in a really rigorous way. These homemade versions and the proportions and the ingredients are not.” Sunscreen, after all, is not merely a skincare product meant to shrink pores or delay aging (though it can do that too). It’s an FDA-regulated drug, because sunscreen’s main purpose is protecting us from two health-related concerns: sunburns and, eventually, skin cancer. (FDA regulatory hurdles are their own massive issue, unfortunately, as they make it difficult to introduce newer, better sunscreen ingredients that Europe and Asia already has to the American market.)

This isn’t to say there aren’t some questions about possible side effects of conventional sunscreen. One such question was partly affirmed in early May. In a small, preliminary FDA study published in JAMA, 24 participants applied 2 milligrams of sunscreen per centimeter over 75% of the body four times daily for four days. The study found that four main sunscreen ingredients — avobenzone, octocrylene, ecamsule, and oxybenzone — were present in participants’ blood at rates higher than what the FDA allows before toxicology testing must take place.

As fun as it is to whip up your own face mask or devise your own bar soap recipe out of oatmeal and essential oils, sunscreen is an entirely different beast.

Following the release of the study, of course, was an avalanche of sensationalist media headlines. “High levels of sunscreen ingredients end up in the bloodstream: study,” wrote Reuters. “The chemicals in sunscreen seep into your bloodstream after just one day, FDA says,” proclaimed USA Today. “FDA Warns Chemicals From Sunscreen Enter Your Bloodstream After One Day,” said Moms.com. While the first two headlines are technically correct (and the third is simply wrong — the FDA isn’t “warning” anyone about anything), they may strike unnecessary fear in readers, when there’s nothing, yet, to actually be afraid of.

Kimberly Miller, a clinical assistant professor of preventive medicine and dermatology at the University of Southern California, points out that the study doesn’t assess if these active sunscreen ingredients cause harm, but rather whether or not they’re present in the blood at all.

“We’ve been using these ingredients in sunscreen for some 30-plus years without evidence of systemic adverse health effects,” she says. “Many things are systemically absorbed into our bloodstream that we actually know are harmful to our health.” Miller notes that most of us breathe in fine particulate matter through air pollution, which isn’t good for us — but few of us go around wearing masks outdoors.

The study itself insists that people shouldn’t stop using sunscreen. The next step for scientists and sunscreen manufacturers is to do more research on the impact these active ingredients may be having on our internal health. But one thing is for sure: broad-spectrum, conventional sunscreen protects the skin from damage wrought by the sun’s rays, and those rays can lead to cancer.

It’s also possible that the news could push people further into the arms of pseudoscience, where loud voices declare the overstated or outright false benefits of “all-natural” edible sunscreen, homemade sunscreen, and sun-protecting antioxidants, while fearmongering about “chemicals” that disrupt human hormones and bleach coral.

McKenzie says she thinks the sunscreen absorption study could play a part in pushing people to make their own sunscreens, which could be dangerous. “There’s really skepticism out there about the medical community,” she says. “We’ve done some focus groups, on a different topic, but there was a lot of skepticism about natural versus man-made anything.”

Miller, whose research focuses on skin cancer, says that sunscreen skepticism is a cause of concern for dermatologists and public health officials looking to curb rising rates of skin cancer in the United States. “I’m worried that this skepticism about sunscreen, fueled by things like the EWG guide to sunscreens (which overstates the risks of chemical sunscreens and is not science-based) and now media sensationalism regarding the JAMA study, dovetails with other anti-science trends (for example, vaccination refusal) and will do nothing to curb the skin cancer epidemic in the U.S.,” she says.

Pinterest is no stranger to controversy — but unlike other social networks, it’s taken swift and decisive action when necessary. When a 2016 study found that 75% of vaccine-related posts on Pinterest were negative, the company took notice, and a year later, it banned “promotion of false cures for terminal or chronic illnesses and anti-vaccination advice” and started blocking vaccine-related searches. With enough public outcry, perhaps the platform will turn its attention to other pseudoscientific activity, such as promoting the use of dangerous homemade sunscreens on children, as well.

And yes, there are still questions about how our bodies interact with sunscreens. But what no one should do is hop on Pinterest — or any social network, for that matter — track down a cool-looking homemade sunscreen recipe, and go to town in their kitchen. There are a lot of fun things you can do on Pinterest instead, like learn all about edible insects, lust after the American Dream (home ownership), and find recipes for making your own soap. Leave the skin damage prevention to the pros.

I’m a columnist for OneZero, where I write about the intersection of health & tech. Also seen at Elemental, The Atlantic, VICE, and Vox. Brooklyn, NY.

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