There are a lot of terms going around for different types of sunscreen. Natural. Chemical. Mineral. Physical. If you’re looking for sun protection that’s as natural as possible, how do you figure out which one to choose? It’s important to understand what a natural sunscreen is (and is not) as well as the pros and cons of the available sunscreen options. That way, that you can pick one that fits your lifestyle and offers you the protection you need.

What is a natural sunscreen?

Let’s clarify some of the terminology real quick.

For our purposes, a natural sunscreen is a sunscreen you can purchase over the counter from a retailer and that has an SPF label. It’s not a concoction of oils and butters that you slather on your skin before you go outside. To learn more about why natural oils and butters are not a sufficient natural sunscreen alternative, here’s a post that offers tips on protecting yourself from sun damage. 

A natural sunscreen is a mineral sunscreen, which is also a physical sunscreen. Yeah, lots of terms for the same thing. 

In the United States, there are only two ingredients that are FDA-approved to be mineral (aka natural) sunscreen: titanium dioxide and zinc oxide. Both are naturally occurring minerals in the Earth that are processed into particles that are then used in an array of applications like paint, ceramics, and cosmetics. Think eyeshadow, blush, and baby powder. Titanium dioxide and zinc oxide can also filter UV rays, so they’re also the primary active ingredients in mineral sunscreen. 

Natural vs. chemical sunscreen

While a mineral sunscreen is natural sun protection, there are some definite drawbacks. For one, mineral sunscreen generally isn’t as easy to apply as chemical sunscreen. Rather than being absorbed into the skin, mineral sunscreen is made to sit on the skin to block UV rays. That means a mineral sunscreen is more likely to leave a white film, creating that ghost effect that everyone just LOVES to sport on beach day, right?

What’s more, people tend to use less sunscreen when using mineral sunscreen because of the issues with application. But when it comes to sunscreen, more is always better. Using less sunscreen defeats the purpose and doesn’t provide adequate protection.

The most problematic issue of all? Research by Consumer Reports shows that only about 26% of natural sunscreens on the market live up to their SPF labeling. By comparison, more than half of the chemical sunscreens tested met their SPF claims. 

So should you ditch your natural sunscreen? 

Not necessarily.

Chemical sunscreen is the alternative to mineral sunscreen, but they are not natural. Instead, they’re made from synthetic ingredients that are absorbed into the skin to prevent sunburn and skin damage. Because they’re more easily absorbed into the skin, they’re generally a lot easier to apply. Some of these synthetic ingredients include avobenzone, homosalate, octisalate, octocrylene, octinoxate, octyl salicylate, and oxybenzone.

However, some of these synthetic ingredients are banned in some places because of their harmful impact on marine life and contribution to coral bleaching. For example, octinoxate and oxybenzone are banned in Hawaii, and the state is working toward adding avobenzone and octocrylene to the list of banned sunscreen ingredients.

Also, if you’re someone with skin sensitivities, the active ingredients in chemical sunscreens are more likely to cause skin irritation. So, a mineral sunscreen is probably a safer bet if eczema or another skin condition is a concern. 

Mineral sunscreen has come a long way in terms of how easy it is to apply. Some are marketed as “sheer”, which is a bonus for anyone with dark skin. Because that ghost effect on dark skin is really not pretty.