Natural sun protection with herbal and culinary oils – a look at plant SPF numbers

naturalsunscreenwildfoodismI like the sun.  I really do.  So it always fascinates me whenever I see others avoiding at all costs this astronomical entity that makes me feel so great.  Maybe I’m unique, I don’t know.  Or maybe there’s a deeper explanation…

All humans require sunlight.  And it’s not just about vitamin D synthesis (although it is important).  The benefits of healthy sun exposure extend far beyond the conversion of 7-dehydrocholesterol to cholecalciferol (vitamin D3), and these benefits have been known for quite some time.

Heliotherapy (phototherapy) was documented scientifically more than one hundred years ago by Niels Ryberg Finsen, a Nobel Prize winning Danish physician who clinically experimented with different wavelengths of light to treat smallpox and tuberculosis of the skin.  Numerous sunbathing clinics were created around the world – first in Europe, then in the United States – to treat patients with skin, bone, and pulmonary tuberculosis.  As antimicrobial treatments became available, however, use of heliotherapy for tuberculosis declined.  Today, heliotherapy is used to treat other conditions, such as acne, psoriasis, eczema, and seasonal affective disorder.

Outside of the clinic, researchers continue to unravel the benefits of healthy sun exposure.  For example, a recent study suggests that sun exposure can reduce blood pressure, which may in turn decrease the risk of heart attack and stroke (1).

Now, I understand the flipside – the risks of prolonged sun exposure, especially for individuals who normally spend a significant amount of time indoors and have not acclimated properly to the sun.  Add to that a diet deficient in antioxidants, and you’ve got a recipe for all kinds of problems.

But even for those who have acclimated themselves to the sun and have ensured a diet rich in antioxidants, sometimes protection is warranted.  Shade and clothing are ways to accomplish this, though I wouldn’t recommend conventional sunscreen products.  Most contain ingredients that could potentially do more harm than good, such as parabens, petroleum oils, and synthetic fragrances.  Research suggests that certain ingredients, when absorbed into the skin, generate more free radicals in users of sunscreen than in individuals who expose themselves to sunlight without sunscreen (2).

There is hope, however, as natural herbal and culinary oils provide their own sun protection factors (SPF) and may be used effectively as natural sunscreens (3).  Research has found that, on average, nonvolatile oils have SPF values between 2 and 8, and volatile oils have SPF values between 1 and 7.

Nonvolatile oils (followed by SPF)

  • Olive oil, 7.549
  • Coconut oil, 7.119
  • Castor oil, 5.687
  • Almond oil, 4.659
  • Mustard oil, 2.105
  • Chaulmoogra oil, 2.019
  • Sesame oil, 1.771

Volatile oils (followed by SPF)

  • Peppermint oil, 6.668
  • Tulsi oil, 6.571
  • Lemon grass oil, 6.282
  • Lavender oil, 5.624
  • Orange oil, 3.975*
  • Lemon oil, 2.810*
  • Eucalyptus oil, 2.625
  • Tea tree oil, 1.702
  • Rose oil, 0.248

*Note: Oils of orange and lemon may increase sensitivity to the sun, and if used cosmetically, may need to be diluted (4).

Overall, this is great news, especially for those who are looking for alternatives to the synthetically produced commercial sunscreens.  Experiment by making your own, or look for products that include some of these oils.

And remember, Homo sapiens evolved under the sun.  In fact, we’re still evolving.  Don’t lose your body’s natural ability to protect itself from healthy sun exposure through extreme indoor living, an inadequate diet, and synthetic sunscreen use.

Intentional sun exposure is a wise strategy.  Perpetual avoidance of the sun?  Maybe not so much.


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-Adam Haritan

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