Sun & Bug Lotion: One Simple Solution

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Introduction: Sun & Bug Lotion: One Simple Solution

About: I am a paper engineer, writer, maker and chemist wannabe. In addition to pop-up cards I design and build furniture, lights, costumes or whatever I happen to need at the time. Lipstick, a mixing studio, all-p...

Why should you cover yourself in sunscreen then bug spray when one cream could do it all? Why buy expensive products when it's so easy, fun and cheap to make your own?
This recipe makes a lotion which feels light, spreads easily and is not greasy at all. The smell is actually pleasant, and it works really well against insects AND the sun. I can't give a precise SPF value -- that depends not only on how thickly it is spread on, but also the strength of the various ingredients which contribute to the SPF varies from batch to batch. Anyway the SPF value does not have much concrete meaning.... What I can say is that a few weekends ago I took my family to watch Prince Harry play polo on Governor's Island for an hour under a punishing sun, and none of us got burnt or bitten. Other spectators were not so lucky....
Thanks to Scoochmaroo for inspiring me to publish this. Her sunscreen is quite different from this one (very thick and stiff -- but also a whole lot less complicated) so I though it worthwhile to offer this alternative.

Step 1: On Sunscreens

Sun rays, just like any other type of waves (water, sound, etc) come in different lengths. The short ones are called UVB. These are the waves which give you sunburns, and, on the positive side, prompt skin to produce the vitamin D we all need. SPF ratings on commercial sunscreens measure the cream's ability to block these waves, and these waves only. It indicates roughly how much more time you can spend in the sun before burning, but it tells you nothing about your protection against UVA rays.

UVA rays are much longer waves, and therefore they penetrate deeper into the skin. These are the rays responsible for the telltale signs of aging, and also for the #1 killer skin cancer, melanoma.

Some ingredients, such as zinc and titanium oxide provide "broad spectrum" protection, which means they block both UVB and UVA rays. These chemicals protect the skin by deflecting and diffusing the waves, but their drawback is that they make skin white when they are first applied. To counter this manufacturers have developed nano zinc and titanium particles which don't make you turn white. Unfortunately, since they are so tiny, they can penetrate into the bloodstream, where the damage they could wreck has not been studied. Unless you want to be part of a long term, unpaid, unmonitored medical study, avoid nano particles. Don't be so lazy and vain. Take a minute to rub in the regular zinc oxide, after a while you won't look like a zombie. I avoid titanium dioxide because it is carcinogenic (for sure on mice, possibly for us too) -- so why take the unnecessary risk when zinc does the job just as well?

Step 2: Ingredients and Where to Find Them

Water mix:
1/3 cup witch hazel (or 5 tbsp if you do not use coffee)
2 tsp fresh coffee grounds (optional)

Oil mix:
1 tbsp coconut oil
1 1/4 tsp ewax
1/2 tsp Neem oil
1/2 tsp sesame oil
2 tsp cocoa powder (optional)

Powder mix:
1 tbsp zinc oxide (quantity can be doubled for extra protection)
1 small pinch xanthan gum (do NOT omit)
1/2 tsp turmeric (optional)

Additives:
1/4 tsp vitamin E
1/4 tsp essential oils (combination of citronella, eucalyptus and lavender, but pennyroyal and peppermint can be used too)

Note on ingredients:
Coconut oil, sesame oil, vitamin E, zinc and turmeric are all "sun" ingredients. Turmeric (a yellow spice you'll find in any supermarket) was used as a cure all in Ayurvedic medicine, but since those guys also believed diseases were caused by demons and that you can wish yourself not to age, I included it here for other reasons: #1 color. I prefer to look sickly yellow rather than zombie white (the coffee and cocoa are also here to improve the color). #2 according to wikipedia turmeric is used in sunscreens and to protect foods from sunlight. If it keeps a pickle nice and firm, hey, maybe it'll keep me from getting flabby! Now I'll just close my eyes and wish for eternal youth...

Neem oil, witch hazel and the essential oils are the bug ingredients. Neem is a potent, dark oil which in this diluted form is safe (and good for) your skin, but it should be avoided during pregnancy. Neem has a distinctive smell somewhere between garlic and peanuts. Unpleasant at first, but it grows on you. It's kind of comforting, like the smell of farts under bed covers.


Xanthan gum is necessary for three reasons: it thickens the lotion so it will not run all over when you try to apply it. It stabilizes the emulsion (keeps the water from separating), and it keeps the zinc oxide suspended in the lotion. Don't be fooled by the small quantity required: you need it.

Ewax is another crucial ingredient. The E stands for emulsifying, and it's purpose is to blend the oil and water into a smooth, stable cream (you might find it under the name "emulsifying wax NF" in online stores. It comes in white, waxy flakes which are easy to measure and melt. It is not considered "all natural" because it is composed of a blend of cetearyl alcohol and polysorbate 60.

Soap Goods supplies all the above ingredients and it might be easiest just to order everything from them, but I found my xanthan gum in the vitamin section of my local Fairway for less (however considering the time spent searching, and the cost of transportation, the savings, if any, are negligible). I would definitely buy the witch hazel from a local pharmacy, and the coconut and sesame oils from a grocery store because they are widely available and heavy to ship.

Step 3: Mixing and Bottling

In a double boiler slowly heat the oil mix till all ingredients are melted and well blended. In a separate container warm the witch hazel with the coffee.

Meanwhile sift the powder mix together.

Remove the witch hazel mix from heat. If you used coffee pass the liquid through a paper filter and add an extra tablespoon of witch hazel.

Slowly drip the oil mix into the witch hazel, blending with a fork or milk frother till all the oil is mixed in and emulsified.

Blend in the powder mix, then the additives.

Step 4: Use and Warnings

According to recent research, the best way to apply sunscreen is liberally 15 to 30 minutes before going out in the sun, then again about 15 to 20 minutes after sun exposure began. After that sunscreen should be reapplied after it has rubbed off (for example after swimming, toweling or sweating). I suspect, that this 15 to 30 minutes prior to exposure rule applies to sunscreens with chemicals that absorb the sun rays rather than those, like zinc oxide, which diffuse and refract them. This type of cream should work the minute it is applied.

I once came across a ridiculous web page written by the Soap and Detergent Association, clearly on the defensive about the rise of DYI -- but one point they made about labeling really does make sense. It is dangerous to have ANY sort of chemical product mislabeled in a recycled container. It is important not only to remove the old labels but also to put on your own, preferably with a detailed list of all the ingredients and first aid instructions in case of accidental misuse. So if you try out my recipe, please print the attached PDF file and use the label (or design your own if mine isn't colorful enough -- I designed mine to look as dull at the real ones).

Warning for people with allergies or sensitive skin: do a patch test before slathering this on. It is quite possible that you would tolerate Deet much better than this -- after all, the vast majority of allergens are 100% natural, 100% organic. Think pollen, dander, nuts, strawberries, mildew.... To test individual ingredients, mix them with something you won't react to (like good old synthetic vaseline) in a concentration roughly equivalent to the concentration in the recipe (1 drop of essential oil mixed with 1/2 tsp mineral oil or vaseline, for example) and dab that in the crock of your arm. For extra peace of mind, do this every day for 2 weeks to make sure you will not become sensitized over time.

A final note on longevity -- it is impossible to give a definite shelf life time frame because too many factors are in play. The first and most important factor is how well all the containers, tools and fingers which come into contact with the product have been sanitized. Ideally, dunk everything (except for fingers) in a pot of simmering water for 15 minutes. That's how I do it when I make jam, but it's not always practical for lotions (the recycled PET containers I use tend to get deformed at those temperatures...). Just clean everything as best you can. Another factor is how fresh your ingredients are. Still another, what ingredients you choose (my coffee/cocoa version, for example, might have a shorter shelf life than the version using straight witch hazel). Finally, whatever spore is floating around in the air or organism is living on your fingertips when you open the bottle might jump in and start a thriving colony.... This is why I usually make small batches or use preservatives. That's right. There's nothing wrong with adding a small quantify of preservatives, in fact, I highly recommend it if you are making any lotion as a gift. I have used Liquid Germall Plus, a paraben free preservative which seems to work quite well. All you need is 0.1 to 0.5% of the total weight, which translates for this recipe to about 3 drops.

Step 5: A Note on the Cost

This cream cost me $1.25. For each ingredient I determined the cost for one gram (including tax and/or shipping), then weighed everything and did some 2nd grade math. Obviously if you need to buy all the ingredients then only make this recipe once and never use your supplies again this will be a VERY expensive bottle... but I'm planning on publishing other instructables which use some of the same ingredients, so stay tuned in case you might want to branch out and make a quick and easy plant spray, flea shampoo for your dog, or marshmallows.

To see what other projects I'm cooking up, check out my blog, www.makeanything.net

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    146 Comments

    Probably change "suncreen" to "sunblock". http://www.news-medical.net/news/2007/08/07/28543.aspx

    1 reply

    Yes, technically, according to that article, this would be sunblock. But I'd hesitate to use the term for (admittedly) subjective reasons. "Sunblock" feels much stronger and robust than "sunscreen" and I wouldn't want anyone to use this sunBLOCK and become complacent about too much exposure...

    Very interesting and inspirational. Would agar agar work as a substitute for ewax? I buy the flakes, boil them up, strain it, store ti, covered, in the frig and strain again before using it. Sometimes I reboil it if I'm using some of the water along with the resulting gel, maybe that's just to comfort me that I'm killing any bacteria from my kitchen?

    1 reply

    I've used Agar Agar in my vegan egg recipe, but I've never tried it in a lotion. It will make a good gel with a water solution, but I don't know how good it is at emulsifying oil and water -- that's what the Ewax is doing, in addition to thickening the cream. You 'll just have to give it a shot! And post a comment with your results!

    Wow, very nice Instructables. I have read that coconut oil, by itself as a sunscreen, is considered about a SPF of 5, so would need to be applied more often. I use it a lot myself.

    I've seen some natural products using grapefruit oils for preservative.

    There is a lady in Okla who makes an "everything balm" with lots of Essential Oils and she is also a chemist by education and occupation, before she took out time to raise and homeschool her kids. She was telling me (I met her in person selling her products at a crafts type show) that water in an ingredient was the quickest thing to be contaminated and to spoil - causing product to go bad. So I started paying attention to "natural " products and won't buy them if it contains water. Now, her product wasn't intended as sunscreen or bug repellent but more for soothing skin, but I think it is interesting that her product uses some of same ingredients as yours.

    Not ready to make today but I am definitely interested in accumulating some of the ingredients I don't yet have like the not-nano-chunky-zinc and ewax.

    Another product I have makes no claims about repelling mosquitos but instead, "gnats and annoying flies", and it uses geranium, peppermint, lemongrass, and clove oil (clove does need to be mixed in with a diluting oil because it can burn skin.).

    So I am gonna bookmark this as I am inspired to make this for me!! Thanks for sharing!

    4 replies

    Not sure what you mean by "ewax" - is it the "emulsifying" wax used for soapmaking?

    Thanks so much for this instructable! I'm looking forward to making it

    Yes, ewax is emulsifying wax

    Glad you like this. Regarding water, it is 100% correct that any formula which contains water will spoil faster than a pure wax/oil combination (aka a balm) -- that's because all living creatures on earth need water to flourish (including bacteria). However water generally improves the "feel" of a product, and also it is needed to be truly moisturizing (a balm will only block moisture loss by evaporation, it does not provide moisture). So I'm not ready to give up on water in my products! But if you want to avoid all preservatives and don't want to keep making small batches of products for yourself than the balms are your best bet.

    Coconut oil does not block UVB rays; the only broad spectrum oil is raspberry seed oil (spf 20 and hella expensive)

    Why do you say it's not due to sunscreen? Maybe the higher class didn't tan, but there were plenty of people in the sun. Maybe not full body exposure, but most people these days have skin cancer on the face it seems. I don't know... I still don't like putting nasty ingredients on my skin, and I have read that the palmitate a in sunscreens, is a chemical vitamin a, and your skin with vitamin a on it should not be exposed to the sunlight because it can increase cancer cells.

    3 replies

    Do you use moisturisers/shower gel/hand wash/shampoo/conditioners? or are you a soap and water person. How is your ozone levels? Do you completely cover yourself outdoors? How are your vitamin D levels?

    Life is a toss of the dice....nothing nicer than the feel of sun on bare skin...and a light sun tan....never for me a chemical tan.

    Just be sensible I say.....this instructable is interesting....especially in this Zika environment when the mosquitos are but a plane ride away.

    No moisturizers, shower gels etc. My soaps are all vegetable based because the US Govt in it's infinite lack of wisdom removed all animal fat soaps from the market - secretly (see the headlines?) because of MAD COW DISEASE possibilities. Of course we know that mad cow (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) ONLY happens to cows that are fed ANIMAL parts and are exposed to some toxic ag chemicals. So it would be unnecessary in a sane world, but our govt is insane.
    Ozone? Everyone is probably short. Ozone in nature - the only real stuff - is O3 - not the chemical breakdown that is called pollution. That is off other breakdowns. Ozone can be dangerous above some levels, true, but not in nature. The UV comes through in i think the 200 - 400 nanometer range, splits the O2 we breathe into 2 O(1) atoms - and they bond with another O2 molecule, forming O3. It is supposed to be the blue in the sky, is heavier than air, and sinks - where it will kill any fungi, bacteria, or virus if delivered correctly and in the correct dosage. In sane nations - it is used to kill cancers and infections.

    i ranch/farm on a little place in N Calif - so i'm out in the sun all the time. Seems i can't be setting fence until it gets over 110 degrees - unfortunately, that is literally true... That should make D3.

    As for Zika - don't worry and for God's sake (and more for yours) DON'T get any Zika vaccines!!! Vaccination as presented is medical retardation - and Zika is just drug pushers faking a danger to get YOUR tax money (how many billions for the developed vax?) from you for them. Rockefeller Foundation (evil, evil people) patented the Zika virus in 47. In it's entire and well known history it has NEVER caused microcephaly. In Columbia last year it was proven to have hit 5,000 people. ZERO microcephaly or neurological cases in there. On the OTHER hand - the area in Brazil where this is happening has a combination of toxic Ag poisons AND MANDATORY DTaP VACCINATION OF PREGNANT WOMEN and the DTaP and TDaP vaccines have a history of neurological damages which inclued rare microcephaly cases but tend to be dominated by spasming, failure to thrive, delayed mental development, etc. when newborns and in-utero infants are involved. The Zika threat is total hype - and the cases in this country WERE IMPORTED to scare you. Brought in from Haiti and elsewhere. Zika makes a mild flu-like fever generally....

    Though I truly value intelligent and courteous debates with people of differing opinions... I would like to ask you to refrain from starting a whole government conspiracy theory/anti-vaccination rant in this instructable comment section. Besides the fact that this is misinformed, it is completely off topic. This is neither the time nor place... thanks for your understanding!

    First: Education. Most people aren't aware that skin cancer increased 500% when sunscreen hit the market. There are several reasons.
    One: people (who generally live indoors in artificial, unhealthy lighting) thought they were totally protected and went in the sun way too long. Gradually increasing your sun exposure is THE best way to avoid sunburn and damage.

    Two: all cancer takes place in a low oxygen environment. Your skin breathes. If you cover your whole skin with something impermeable - you can't get enough oxygen through your lungs alone to survive. Thus - your skin needs to take in oxygen. When the skin is all oiled up, in many instances this makes it impossible for your skin to eliminate poisons from your system through your pores. This can turn your skin into the perfect cancer breeding ground - toxic, low oxygen environment - how can you better damage healthy cells?

    A not insignificant side point is that any sunscreen over SPF 6 will stop you from making Vitamin D3 from the LDL cholesterol in your skin. That D3 will prevent over 20 types of cancers - so the sunlight is better for you than sunscreen in general - you just have to hit some balance btwn (minimizing, hopefully) screen and nature.

    6 replies

    I had never heard about the 500% increase in skin cancer corresponding to sunscreen use... What is your source? I'd be interested to learn more. Were the reasons you gave part of the study or your own conjecture? Because I know skin needs to breathe, but I also know rubbing oil on your skin does not prevent it from doing so (possibly being entirely submerged in a vat of oil WOULD prevent your skin from breathing, but luckily that's not a very common occurrence!). Anyway, I'd be interested in checking out your sources. Thanks!

    Read "WORLD WITHOUT CANCER" by G Edward Griffin. 2-part book about the science and politics behind laetrile (which works of course). It was the first health food/natural healing sort of book i'd read - in 77, and i was hooked. By 78 i knew things that MDs are just finding out now- because 95% have NO training in biochemistry or nutrition - or at best it resembles their "vaccine training". A short afternoon of what drug pushers tell them about when and how much of the propaganda strain of knowledge is acceptable.

    The cancer industry in the 70s went in one day, from "curing" (they actually used the word back then) something like 18% of the cancers to curing 76% of the cancers. They did that by including the skin cancers in their statistics, and at least at that time, most "skin cancers" cleared theirselves up if you sneezed or went on a hot dog diet. (exaggeration to attempt humor/irony) It's a scam - the cancer industry.

    Of course any disease is the failure of the immune system. I have had some instances of Bowen's disease, which have been "cured" by some topical chemo. It is the melanoma which is the bad skin cancer, ...or maybe by the occasional sneeze.

    Thanks for taking the time to answer. I had to look up allopathic medicine (which is how homeopaths refer to science-based medicine) and also laetrile (#1 search result had an interesting story about the substance on Quackwatch). To be honest I'm not a huge fan of alternative medicine, even though I will say that when homeopathy started in the late 18th, early 19th century it was arguably much safer than the traditional medicine of the time; the placebo effect it provides was definitely better than the harm caused by bleedings and various medical horrors being practiced then. As a rule I tend to favor large double blind studies over anecdotes, I try not to confuse correlation with causation, and I prefer getting my information from mainstream sources like the WHO, CDC, NYT or NPR. I'm not big on conspiracy theories or talking about "Big Pharma" like it's an evil dictator (it's just a for profit industry which must to be regulated carefully). Nor am I anti GMO (if golden rice can save millions of people from malnutrition and pest resistant crops can eliminate the need to pour tons of pesticides on our crops, I consider that a net positive). Science is not perfect, and what we think today can be proven wrong tomorrow -- but it's the best we've got. All this to say I'll continue using sunscreen and encouraging others to do so too. All things considered I believe it will lower, rather than increase an average person's risk of getting cancer.

    Just realized - the info about the skin cancer was PROBABLY from the Townsend Letter for Doctors and Patients. In the 90s i had about 10,000 hard copy articles on natural healing and "issues" with allopathic medicine - which truly SUCKS. It was all left behind with my CO-OP in N Minnesota and they went under 6 mos after we left.

    It might have been in there, because i think the sunscreen fad hit about the 80s, no? That would not put it into the WW/o Cancer book...

    That was pre-internet, so i don't know where to look now. i DO KNOW that some health issues are being re-written on the web. For example: the first GMO in this country - an l-tryptophan supplement from Showa Denko pHARMaceutical in Japan (pHARMa - keeping harm large, lol) killed a few over 120 Americans with eisinophilic myalgia syndrome - EMS. Over the years the number has been cut to 90 some, then 70 something by the early 2000s. Mid 2000s it was claimed to be in the high 30/low 40s, around 2010 it was claimed to be about 20some people killed.....

    Rubbing a chemical laden lotion onto your skin and then going out into the sun for hours and 'baking' it into your skin is a sure-fire way of asking for trouble.