Should you trust all the medical advice you read on the internet?
In fact, the “cures” you find may cause more harm than good.
A quick Pinterest search for do-it-yourself (DIY) sunscreen reveals thousands of recipes, most of which have no scientific evidence to back their claims.
A new study finds people who use these sunscreen recipes could be putting their lives at risk.
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Lara McKenzie, PhD, principal investigator with the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, and lead author of the study, said her team investigated how homemade sunscreens were portrayed on Pinterest.
She said they found that about 95 percent of DIY sunscreens were positively promoted for their effectiveness, but almost 70 percent recommended “a recipe for sunscreen offering insufficient UV radiation protection.”
“What that means,” McKenzie told Healthline, “is they made the homemade sunscreens look like they would protect you or your child when in fact they were made from ingredients that would only offer minimal scientifically proven broad-spectrum protection from UV radiation.”
Dr. Richard Torbeck, board-certified dermatologist with Advanced Dermatology PC, has similar concerns.
“I deal with melanoma and skin cancer on a daily basis and feel that [these recipes are] not worth the risk,” Torbeck told Healthline.
Risks of online sunscreen recipes
While homemade lip balm or conditioner may or may not work, it doesn’t put you or your children’s lives at risk from a potentially fatal cancer.
“If I stop and think about what I see on Pinterest as a user, as a mom, and as an injury researcher,” said McKenzie. “I guess I’m not surprised because there’s so much in that movement of DIY and natural organic and doing the best for your children. But not all the things you can DIY are necessarily safe for your children. That’s where my injury expert teeth come out.”
“What’s at risk here is at best sunburn and at worst skin cancer in the future,” she added.
Dr. Tanya Nino, dermatologist with St. Joseph Hospital in Orange, California, sees similar problems in concocting your own sunscreen from an internet recipe.
“The issue with DIY sunscreens is that they cannot be reliable in terms of the degree of sun protection they provide,” she told Healthline. “Commercially available sunscreens have been extensively tested to determine their ability to prevent sunburn. DIY sunscreens may claim to have a certain SPF, but without the proper testing, the actual SPF may be lower than intended.”
There’s also the problem with the ingredients.
“In addition to the active ingredients in sunscreens, there are also ingredients that stabilize the sunscreen over time, help it spread evenly over the skin, and help make sure it’s actually durable in UV light,” Nino explained. “Achieving this level of quality in DIY formulations is not reliable.”
This is even true for sunscreens with coconut oil.
Sunburn increases cancer risk
While the increased cancer risk from experiencing sunburn isn’t precise, studies show that just five blistering sunburns in childhood can raise the lifetime risk of melanoma by 80 percent.
“Sunburn absolutely increases your risk of skin cancer,” said Nino. “In fact, a history of sunburn is one of the main risk factors for developing melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer.”
Experts agree the best way to prevent sunburn is by using an FDA-approved, commercially prepared sunscreen.
“Daily sunscreen use helps prevent the daily damage to our skin cells DNA. By reducing the DNA damage, there is a decreased risk that one of these skin cells or pigment cells go rogue and form a cancer,” said Torbeck.
Online medical advice
Pinterest recently came under fire for hosting what critics say is unproven and potentially unsafe medical advice.
The company announced in February they’re putting limits on topics such as vaccines and investigating pins reported by users.
However, there remains an abundance of DIY sunscreen posts.
According to Pinterest’ policy on misinformation: “Pinterest’s misinformation policy prohibits things like promotion of false cures for terminal or chronic illnesses and anti-vaccination advice. Because of this, you’re not allowed to save content that includes advice where there may be immediate and detrimental effects on a Pinner’s health or on public safety.”
Pinterest officials did not respond to Healthline’s requests for an interview for this story.
Use only FDA-approved sunscreen
McKenzie is emphatic when it comes to online sunscreen recipes.
“Use commercial sunscreen. Don’t make your own,” she said.
For those who choose not to use sunscreen at all “you should stay out of the sun entirely. But you should be using a commercial sunscreen for sure,” she said.
“This doesn’t mean it has to be a major manufacturer,” McKenzie added. “It can be an off-brand, but one that’s sold in stores and is commercially available, that’s the kind you want to use. Those meet certain criteria and standards for testing. The ones you make yourself… we have no idea if they really will offer the sun protection factor that they claim to.”
According to McKenzie, sun safety includes:
- Everyone 6 months and older should use a broad-spectrum sunscreen that protects against both UVA and UVB rays.
- Use SPF 30 or higher. The ones that were seen in McKenzie’s study had claims of SPF from 2 all the way to 50, but she said there’s no way to know that for sure with the ingredients that were listed.
- Model good habits for your children by applying sunscreen early, applying it often, and throwing out old, expired sunscreen.
The bottom line
Recent research finds DIY recipes for homemade sunscreen are rampant on Pinterest.
These formulations could put you at risk for sunburn and skin cancer.
Experts recommend using a commercially available, FDA-approved sunscreen to prevent skin damage and reduce cancer risk.
You should use at least an SPF of 30, apply it often, and throw out sunscreen once it expires.