While there isn’t a standard definition of “natural sunscreen,” the term generally refers to mineral sunscreens that create a physical barrier to block the sun’s UV rays. But is natural sunscreen safe and effective? What are the ingredients in natural sunscreens? And are there any downsides to natural sunscreens? Continue below for our answers to these questions and more as we examine natural sunscreens!
What Makes a Sunscreen “Natural?”
There isn’t a technical standard defining “natural” sunscreen. Typically, the label “natural” refers to mineral (or physical) sunscreens. Mineral sunscreens, as opposed to chemical sunscreens, contain titanium dioxide and/or zinc oxide. These two minerals deflect UV rays, and therefore form a barrier when applied to the surface of your skin.
Critics might argue that although titanium dioxide and zinc oxide are naturally mined from the earth, they are still heavily refined before being used in natural sunscreens. Meanwhile, proponents of natural sunscreens would claim these minerals as far more “natural” than the chemical ingredients found in non-mineral sunscreens, such as commercially-produced oxybenzone, octinoxate, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene and so on. We should note, though, that you could find some of these chemical ingredients in nature. Still, commercial sunscreen production seldom (if ever) sources these ingredients naturally.
Are Natural Sunscreens Safe to Use?
Natural sunscreens are also called physical sunscreens or “sunblock” because their primary active ingredients remain on the skin’s surface. In reality, it appears as though titanium dioxide and zinc oxide are less absorbable, but can still be absorbed into your skin. There is evidence that trace amounts of both minerals can be absorbed, but with a “lack of significant dermal penetration,” especially when compared to chemical ingredients found in non-physical sunscreens. Absorption matters because some chemical ingredients may disrupt hormone activity. Natural sunscreens, on the other hand, are not known to disrupt hormone levels.
If you are concerned about sunscreen absorption, then a natural sunscreen should at least be more reassuring than a chemical alternative. Likewise, if you are prone to breaking out or have an allergic reaction to any chemical ingredients, consider testing a natural sunscreen to see if your skin responds better.
Are Natural Sunscreens Safe for Coral Reefs?
If you are using sunscreen in the water, then you should also consider how it may impact your environment. Recently, more evidence suggests a link between popular chemical ingredients, especially oxybenzone and octinoxate, and coral bleaching, which damages and distresses coral reefs. For comparison, the most common active ingredients in natural sunscreens (titanium dioxide and zinc oxide) are less likely to damage coral reefs. We say “less likely” because, when reduced to nano-particles, marine life and coral could still ingest these natural ingredients, with unknown consequences. Despite the preceding disclaimer, natural sunscreens are likely more “reef-friendly” than chemical sunscreens.
But Are Natural Sunscreens Effective?
The big question, of course, is does natural sunscreen actually work? Yes, but with one caveat. After thorough testing of several natural sunscreens, Consumer Reports found that some performed below their advertised SPF labels. This doesn’t mean they didn’t work, but they did not consistently meet their advertised SPF rating. To accommodate any discrepancy between advertised and actual SPF performance, you could select an SPF 50 sunblock. Even with SPF rating discrepancies, SPF 50 sunscreen should at least offer well beyond SPF 30 protection. While that’s a potentially alarming caveat, there is one big performance advantage to natural sunscreens: they are instantly effective. Once applied, natural sunscreens are immediately providing mineral UV protection. Chemical sunscreens, meanwhile, need about 20-30 minutes to absorb into your skin before they are effective.
Should You Use Natural Sunscreen?
We are not qualified to give medical advice, and therefore can’t answer this for you. If you still have questions, you should speak with your doctor or a dermatologist, or consider alternatives to sunscreen. They can answer the questions we can’t, and hopefully you are now more prepared to ask them!
No matter which type of sunscreen you choose, take a tip from this video on how to properly apply it:
Keep in mind, sunscreen is only one part of an effective defense against the sun. For the best protection, pair sunscreen with UPF sun protective apparel, such as a sun shirt and hat. To shop Rayward Apparel’s collection of UV-protective clothing, click here.
Sources: ConsumerReports.org; Healthline.com; National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI)
Sadrieh N, Wokovich AM, Gopee NV, et al. Lack of significant dermal penetration of titanium dioxide from sunscreen formulations containing nano- and submicron-size TiO2 particles. Toxicol Sci. 2010;115(1):156‐166. doi:10.1093/toxsci/kfq041