Natural Sun Protection,  Plant Bioscience,  Sunscreen

The sunscreening properties of plants

Do plant oils and extracts protect from UVA and UVB? To what extend? This article shares what spectral analyses studies reveal about plant based photoprotection.

One of the most common questions asked regarding the oils I have tested in my home experiment, was whether they protect from UVA and UVB radiation. The short answer is yes and the full answer is this:

“Successive increments in the number of absorbing molecules in the path of the beam of monochromatic radiation absorb equal fractions of the radiation power travel through them”

In simple words, according to the Beer’s and Lambert’s law: the greater the number of molecules that absorb certain wavelength, the greater the absorption.

In even simpler words: the higher the concentration of the UV absorbing molecules in a sample (oil or extract) the higher the protection.

My previous post explained Why and how plant compounds protect from UV.

In short, it is through the process of electron transition, that certain plant molecules work as UV absorbers and this ability is dictated by the specific structure of a given molecule.

Now we know that it is the concentration of these molecules in the plant oil or extract, that dictates their UV screening abilities as explained by the Beer’s and Lambert’s law. But what dictates the concentration of these molecules in the plant?

Plants and the photoprotective molecules they produce

Plants produce UV screening compounds to protect themselves from the damage that excess UV radiation can cause to its photosynthesis machinery. UV radiation is therefore the detrimental factor in the amount of protection a plant will need to produce: the more sun the organism is exposed to, the greater the need for the protection.

While tolerance to UV varies between plant species and varieties, there are also environmental factors that play a role in plants UV exposure. Those factors are:

  • Geographical location – plants growing in locations with the highest UV index are more at risk for UV caused damage
  • Altitude – the higher the altitude the higher the UV exposure
  • Density of planting – higher density creates more shade

The Global Solar Index UV.
From collection: Vital Ozone Graphics 2.0 – Climate Link
Cartographer: Emmanuelle Bournay, GRID-Arendal

Other factors that play a role in the efficacy of the UV screening molecules in the sample are:

  • Extraction method: studies show that extraction method changes the absorption peak of the sample and consequently oils produced from the same sample, but via different extraction (cold press, hexane, ethanol, acetone, distilled water, ultrasonic) will produce different absorption results and peaks when tested
  • Time of the harvest – oils and extracts made from plants harvested in the months of highest UV index will have a higher density of the sunscreening molecules.
  • Particle size – this is evident in the studies of mineral blockers such as titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, where the size of the particles affects its efficacy at blocking the UV light.
A study of “Molecular Spectroscopic Analysis of Daucus carota Plant Pigment Extracts” published in Annual Research & Review in Biology 2017
UV/visual attenuation spectra for various particle sizes of titanium dioxide. Modified from Ref. [8].
Engineered Inorganic Nanoparticles and Cosmetics: Facts, Issues, Knowledge Gaps and Challenges. Journal of Biomedical Nanotechnology Vol. 6, 408–431, 2010

SPF values and UVA absorption spectra of tested oils

In the first paragraph I have confirmed that the oils I have used in my home experiment protect from UVA and UVB wavelenghts, here are the SPF numbers and UVA absorption spectra based on studies I have found:

  • Carrot Root Extract – SPF 1.69 to 24.25
  • Carrot Seed Oil – SPF 6.92 to 18.80
  • Carrot seed oil – absorbs all UVA between 320 – 340 nm and 70% of UVA after that,
  • Almond oil – SPF 4.6, absorbs all UVA between 320 – 365 nm and 95% of UVA after that
  • Wheat Germ Oil – SPF 22.40 absorbs all UVA between 320 – 365 nm and 95% of UVA after that
  • Raspberry Seed Oil SPF 28 to 50, PFA of 6.75-7.5.
  • Coconut Oil – SPF 1.75 to 7.36, absorbs about 20% of UVA between 320 and 400 nm

Carrot Root Extract and Carrot Seed Oil

A study conducted at the University of Kinshasa and published in the Journal of Chemical, Biological and Physical Sciences · March 2015 conducted in vitro spectral analysis of SPF factors for Carrot and Coconut extracts.

The samples were extracted using two different methods: Ethyl acetate and Aquatious extraction.

The samples were tested at different concentrations of parts per million and showed as follows:

Carrot Extract

  • SPF 24.25 at 2000/ppm – Ethyl Acetate extract
  • SPF 13.77 at 1000/ppm – Ethyl Acetate extract
  • SPF 9.6 at 2% concentration in cream of the Ethyl Acetate extract
  • SPF 1.69 in an Aqueous extract – this result was also achieved in a study of aqueous extracts here

Coconut Extract

  • SPF 3.71 at 2000/ppm – Ethyl Acetate extract
  • SPF 1.75 at 1000/ppm – Ethyl Acetate extract
  • SPF 7.36 in an Aqueous extract – also duplicated in another study here
SPF Determination of Carrot and Coconut Extracts
Comparative in vitro Sun Protection Factor (SPF) values of some herbal extracts found in Kinshasa by Ultraviolet Spectrophotometry
Journal of Chemical, Biological and Physical Sciences · March 2015

Another study, also from Kinshasa titled “Sun Protection Factor (SPF) Determination of Cosmetic Formulations Made in Kinshasa (DR Congo) by In-Vitro Method using UV-VIS Spectrophotometer” and published in the Journal of Physical and Chemical science, tested 16 creams and lotions containing natural ingredients for their SPF values.

What is interesting about this study is that 11 out of 16 tested products showed SPF values between SPF4.95 and 21.84, while only 3 were sold as sunscreen. Of the remainder 8, one formulation containing Coconut Extract showed SPF of 21.84 and another containing Carrot oil showed SPF of 15.74, however there is no mention of the concentration used.

Sun Protection Factor (SPF) Determination of Cosmetic Formulations Made in Kinshasa (DR Congo) by In-Vitro Method using UV-VIS Spectrophotometer, Journal of Physical and Chemical science

In another study published in Journal of Cosmetic and Laser Therapy
Volume 21, 2019
and evaluating the antiaging potential of carrot seed oil (CSO) based cosmetic emulsions, the SPF value of the emulsion containing 6% concentration of Carrot Seed Oil was established to be SPF 6.92

A 2016 study published in International Journal of Pharmacology Research conducted Spectral analysis of Carrot Seed Oil and Wheat Germ Oil The calculated SPF values were as follows:

  • SPF 18.80 – Carrot Seed Oil
  • SPF 22.40 – Wheat Germ Oil
Determination of Sun Protective Factor of Carrot Seed Oil and Wheat Germ Oil,

The above studies clearly show that the sunscreening activity of plant oils and extracts are concentration dependent and the results vary based on the extraction method used.

Raspberry Seed Oil

A study published in 2000 in Elsevier’s Food Chemistry journal measured the composition and properties of Rusus Idaeus L. commonly known as Red Raspberry Seed Oil.

Spectroscopic analyses found high absorption in the UV range 290-400nm, with SPF value of 28-50 and UVA PFA of 6.75-7.5.

“The optical transmission of raspberry seed oil, especially in the UV range (290-400 nm) was comparable to that of titanium dioxide preparations with sun protection factor for UVB (SPF) and protection factor for UV-A (PFA) values between 28-50 and 6.75-7.5, respectively.”

Fig. 1. Ultra violet/visible spectra of raspberry seed oil. Figure derived from scans (l=200±290) of oil diluted 1:100; from scans (l=290±400 and l=400±800) of oil diluted 1:10, all in hexane. Black line is absorbance and gray line is transmission. Source

To clarify, the SPF value of 28-50 is equivalent of 96-98% of UVB absorption by the substance as SPF 30 absorbs around 97.6% of UVB and SPF 50 98%.

SPF rating and the % of UVB Absorption

In another study conducted at the Department of Fiber and Polymer Engineering Faculty of Natural Sciences, Architecture and Engineering, Bursa Technical University, Turkey and published in European Scientific Journal June 2014, the investigators tested 10 oils (listed below).

These are the results for the test in the UVA range 320 – 400 nm:

  • Carrot seed – absorbs all UVA between 320 – 340 nm and about 70% of UVA after that
  • Almond – absorbs all UVA between 320 – 365 nm and about 95% of UVA after that
  • Wheat germ – absorbs all UVA between 320 – 365 nm and about 95% of UVA after that
  • Grapes seed – absorbs all UVA between 320 – 400 nm
  • Apricot seed – absorbs all UVA between 320 – 36 nm and 90% of UVA after that
  • Jojoba – absorbs all UVA between 320 – 345 nm and 65% of UVA after that
  • Sesame seed – absorbs 90% of UVA between 320 – 330 nm and about 65% of UVA after that
  • Avocado – absorbs all UVA between 320 – 350 nm and about 45% of UVA after that
  • Cocoa – absorbs all UVA between 320 – 350 nm and about 70% of UVA after that

The results for UVB transmission and absorption were not covered in this analysis.

Source “A techinical glance at some cosmetic oils” European Scientific Journal June 2014 /SPECIAL/ edition vol.2 ISSN: 1857 – 7881 (Print) e – ISSN 1857- 7431

Another study conducted at the Institute of Pharmacy, Ravishankar Shukla University in India and published in Pharmacognosy Research in March 2010 tested volatile and non volatile oils, establishing as follows:

  • SPF 7.11 – Coconut Oil
  • SPF 4.6 – Almond Oil

How plant oils compare to commercial sunscreens

Synthetic filters are chemically pure molecules that absorb or block UV energy at a specific waveband. Unlike synthetic filters, plant derived oils and extracts are a rich mixture of molecules with varying roles which cover a boarder spectrum of absorbance producing at least two different bands in the Visible Light and the Ultraviolet Regions.

In case of organic UV filters, their main protection mechanism is based on electronic transitions in which a photon of sun energy is absorbed by the electron and subsequently emitted as a less harmful energy. However, photoprotection through UV absorption is just one of many functions produced by these molecules. Plant oils and extracts are a very rich source of molecules of varying functions, produced to protect the plant from photo-oxidative damage through their antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and immunomodulatory activities. Majority of these antioxidants are polyphenols which quench the excited state of the harmful Reactive Oxygene Species (ROS) or Free Radicals. 

The negative effect of chronic UV exposure is wavelength dependent and lies in its ability to cause sunburn, creation of the ROS and in immune suppression. The UV induced skin damage is mainly caused by the ROS which are responsible for cell lipo-peroxidation, skin aging and tissue damage. Thus plant oils and extracts are able to protect our skin not only by UV absorption, but also by providing protection after the UV exposure by minimizing UV induced redness, inflammation, edema, skin thickening, immunosuppression, tumor formation as well as by the reversal of UV induced damage to our cells and DNA when applied topically and when ingested. The science showing how the consumption of specific plant constituents makes our skin more resistant to sunburn induced photo damage is undeniable and continues to grow. 

Synthetic filters besides from providing limited protection against specific wavebands of UV, offer none of the positive health benefits provided by the rich mix of plant antioxidants, vitamins and fats that plant oils contain. 


Figure 3: UV Effectiveness Spectra (Action x Sun Spectra): Erythema[7], Free Radicals (ROS)[6] and Immuno-Suppression[8].  The evolution of UVA protection


The takeaway

Understanding that plants are living organisms, producing UV screening molecules as a response to the environment the live in, explains why the UV spectral analysis results of plant oils vary from study to study.

When two studies of the same type of plant oil or extract produce different absorption peaks and SPF values, the results do not refute one another, but merely reflect what Beer’s and Lambert’s observation that the UV absorption is concentration dependent. Additionally, environmental and physical factors, such as UV exposure of the plant itself, extraction method, particle size, storage conditions also affect the ability of the sample to attenuate UV light.

Carrot seed oil and carrot extract are effective UVB absorbers and moderate UVA absorbers.

Wheat Germ oil is potent UVB and UVA absorber.

Raspberry seed oil is effective UVB absorber and moderate UVA absorber

Grape seed oil and Almond oil are excellent UVA absorbers

Used together, they make a broad spectrum sunscreen capable of protecting from UVA and UVB while also nourishing the skin with high levels of fats, antioxidants and vitamins.

Over the past year I have compiled hundreds of studies of spectral analysis of many dozens of plant oils and extracts, many of which are regularly used in our kitchens and are excellent photoprotectants with SPF values between 20 to 66 and with excellent UVA absorption. I am currently working on developing all plant based sun protection and after sun. In the meantime here are my two science based recipes for Sunscreen and After Sun.

Sunscreen Recipe

1/3 – Raspberry Seed Oil – SPF 28-50 – moderate UVA absorber

1/3 – Wheat Germ Oil – SPF 22.40 and excellent UVA absorber

1/3 – Grape seed Oil – excellent UVA absorber

Cover the skin generously and reapply as needed after sweating, swimming, playing in the sand and towel drying.  


After Sun Recipe

UV induced skin damage does not happen only during the sun exposure, immune suppression and damage caused by ROS continues for many hours even days, after the initial exposure. Sun protection should not therefore end on applying the sunscreen alone, but should also include effective after sun care to help our bodies repair the potential damage. This simple home made After Sun contains few of the best known and studied ingredients that will aid our bodies in reversing the damage and and assist in healing. 

1/4 – fresh aloe vera gel scooped out from the leaf or pure aloe vera juice (purchased)

1/4 – green tea (brewed as normal and left to cool)

1/4 – avocado oil 

1/4 – sea buckthorn oil 

3 drops of peppermint essential oil (cooling factor)

Blend all ingredients till you achieve homogenized solution and use liberally on the skin after UV exposure, refrigerate for up to 7 days.

Aloe Vera is proven to be one of the best known healing agents for all kinds of burns; solar, chemical or thermal. Topical application of Aloe vera has been shown to accelerated the collagen production process of the skin and prevents UV induced immunosupression. It was also shown to significantly reduced the tumour size, weight and histological changes in skin cancer in mice as well as significantly increased the survival of the animal. 

Green tea, applied topically or ingested has been shown to prevent UVB induced skin tumors in mice. An effect that is attributed through its ability to rapidly repaid DNA. Application of green tea constituent EGCG on human skin resulted in the inhibition of UVB-induced sunburn, oxidative stress and inflammation. It also prevents UVB-induced cyclobutane pyrimidine dimers formation, mediators of UVB-induced immune suppression and skin cancer induction. 

Avocado oil is a rich source of rich in vitamin E, β–carotene, vitamin D, protein, lecithin, minerals, and vitamins A, C, D, and E.  Research shows that topical application of avocado oil in rats increased collagen synthesis and decrease the numbers of inflammatory cells. Vitamin E which was shown to reduce UV induced lipid peroxidation, limiting DNA damage and many other chemical and structural changes in the skin caused by UV. Topical application after UV exposure was also shown to reduced UV induced tumor formation in mice as well as erythema, skin swelling and thickening as well as limited the activation of the immune cells of the skin in humans. 

Sea Buckthorn oil contains approximately 190 bioactive substances including: saturated and unsaturated fatty acids, vitamins: A, C, D, E, F, K, P, and B complex vitamins (B1, B2, B6), provitamin A,  strong antioxidants flavonoids, 11 mineral salts, including zinc, iron, calcium, selenium, copper, tannins, phospholipids, anthocyanins, steroids, sugars, pectins, approx. 18 amino acids. Its health profile for the skin is based on its antioxidant properties, it helps fight free radicals, “rebuilds cells and delays cell ageing, supports wound healing, reduces scars and discolourations, treats dermatoses, eczemas, ulceration, psoriasis, atopic dermatitis, acne, improves skin elasticity and structure, provides appropriate hydration of epidermis, limits excessive water loss, protects against harmful radiation (solar or x-rays), has a regenerative and anti-ageing effect.” (source)

 Topical application of Vitamin C and E after UV exposure was shown to reduce immunosuppression, DNA damage, inhibit erythema, skin pigmentation and cell death in numerous animal and human studies. 

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