It’s no secret that prolonged exposure to the sun’s UV rays leads to sunburn and increases the risk of skin cancer. (1) But with so many labels and terms to sort through, the choices can feel overwhelming. The topic even garnered national attention back in 2014 when President Obama signed the Sunscreen Innovation Act (2) into law, providing an alternative process for the review of safety and effectiveness of non-prescription sunscreen active ingredients.

When you’re shopping for sunscreen, what’s your number one priority? According to a 2016 report from the Consumer Reports National Research Center, nearly half of shoppers seek out a “natural” product for sun protection. (3) Some people are even making their own.

But what does “natural” sunscreen actually mean? Does it actually work? Here’s a handy guide to the confusing category of ‘natural’ sun protection.

woman applying sunscreen on her face sitting in a tent

Natural sunscreen – which most people seek out – is a sunscreen that contains only titanium dioxide, zinc oxide, or both as active ingredients.

What makes ‘natural’ sunscreen natural?

It’s hard to say exactly what makes a “natural” sunscreen because there are no legal standards (4) for the term as it applies to personal care products. In general though, natural sunscreen – a name often used interchangeably with mineral sunscreen – is a sunscreen that contains only titanium dioxide, zinc oxide, or both as active ingredients.

Did you know?
In the world of skincare, the ingredients in natural sunscreens are often referred to as organic, but they aren’t. In the world of science, these ingredients are actually inorganic chemicals. So don’t let these marketing terms fool you!

What’s the difference between natural and synthetic sunscreen?

The minerals found in natural sunscreen work by sitting on top of the skin and deflecting the sun’s UV rays. Conventional synthetic sunscreens, on the other hand, contain ingredients like avobenzone, ecamsule, homosalate, octisalate, octocrylene, octyl methoxycinnamate, octyl salicylate and, oxybenzone, which absorb the sun’s rays (5) and transform them into less damaging low-energy waves. So, you can think of natural sunscreens as an umbrella and synthetic sunscreens as a super-absorbent ShamWow. Both can protect you from getting wet but do so in different ways.

Does natural sunscreen work?

Yes! But only if used in the right way. See, there can be a bit of a vanity issue with natural sunscreens. They tend to be thick, white and goopy, often making your skin look chalky and ghostlike. For this reason, people tend to put on less rather than more. And of course, the less sunscreen applied means less protection from the sun’s rays. Though newer versions are more flattering when applied, they are in the minority.

Once applied, natural sunscreens instantly protect your skin. Synthetic sunscreens, on the other hand, need about 20 minutes to absorb in your skin before they can absorb the sun’s rays.

Additional facts to consider

The physical structure of titanium dioxide and zinc oxide make them inert. This is a fancy way of saying that they’re not reactive and get along well with other ingredients. For this reason, they tend to be a little more gentle on the skin. So if you’ve ever found your face burning after applying sunscreen or for people who are acne- or eczema-prone, natural sunscreen is likely to freak out your sensitive skin.

How to pick the best natural sunscreen?

First things first, check the ingredients. Remember, a natural sunscreen should only include titanium dioxide, zinc oxide, or a combination of both! Next, the product should be at least SPF30 and be broad spectrum – this means it should protect you from both UVA and UVB rays. Once you’ve checked off those keywords, you can test the sunscreen for feel and blendability. Lotions and creams may be preferable to aerosol. If you use a natural sunscreen spray, there’s really no way to tell how much sunscreen you should be applying.

What about natural sunscreen oils?

While browsing the internet, you may have come across recommendations and pictures telling you that you can substitute your sunscreen with raspberry seed oil, coconut oil, shea butter and many other common and exotic plant oils and extracts. (6) While some of these ingredients can offer wonderful skin benefits and offer antibacterial properties, using oil as natural sunscreen doesn’t meet health professionals’ recommendations for adequate sun protection.

coconut oil in a jar with raw coconuts next to it

Coconut oil should not be used as a stand-alone sunscreen.

Why can you not just simply replace your sunscreen with these oils and butters? Three important reasons:

1. Natural oils do not absorb UV sufficiently

In a 2016 study, researchers found that natural oils are not suitable to block UV rays. They measured aloe vera, canola oil, citronella oil, coconut oil, olive oil and soya bean oil for their ability to absorb UV rays. They concluded that their Sun Protection Factor (SPF) (6) is very close to one. (7) Another study done in 2010 found slightly higher values for certain oil, but these were still had an SPF no higher than a 7. (8)

2. Natural oils do not absorb UV at the right wavelengths

In the 2016 study mentioned above, vitamin E was the only substance that showed any appreciable ability to absorb UV rays. However, this only occurred at wavelengths below 310nm. For reference, sunlight’s UVB/UVA range is 290-400nm, so most of the UV rays would still pass through unblocked.

3. Natural oils have not had their SPF tested and verified for use as sunscreen

Natural botanical oils have not gone through the lab and human testing required to establish their SPF. If you see a business selling a natural oil with a stated SPF, write to them and ask for their test results.

The bottom line

The best sunscreen for you is one that you’ll actually use and apply daily. It should be SPF 30 or higher and provide broad-spectrum protection to prevent damage from the sun’s UVA and UVB rays. Beyond that, to make the best choice, you need to know how your skin type responds to different sunscreen ingredients and textures: those containing natural ingredients, synthetic ingredients, or a combination of both.

And remember! Sunscreen shouldn’t be the only tool in your sun-protection arsenal. (9) You should also:

  • Limit sun exposure during peak hours between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.
  • Use shade wisely
  • Wear sun-protective clothing, including sunglasses
  • Protect easily forgotten areas (scalp, ears, eyelids, lips and, tops of feet)
  • Avoid sunlamps and tanning beds

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