When shopping for sun protection, nearly half of people look for a “natural” sunscreen, according to a new survey of 1,000 sunscreen users from the Consumer Reports National Research Center. But if you trust your skin to one of these products, you could be getting more UV damage than you think. While a "natural” sunscreen provides some protection, products in this category have consistently performed less effectively in our testing than their chemical cousins. In fact, not a single one made our list of recommended sunscreens this year (or in years past).

What Makes a 'Natural' Sunscreen Natural?

It’s hard to say just what a “natural” sunscreen is because there are no standards for the term, but it’s often used to refer to mineral sunscreens, those that contain only titanium dioxide, zinc oxide, or both as active ingredients. Those minerals work by deflecting the sun’s UV rays. Chemical sunscreens absorb the sun’s rays. Those products contain active ingredients such as avobenzone, ecamsule, homosalate, octisalate, octocrylene, octyl methoxycinnamate, octyl salicylate, and oxybenzone. And just because its active ingredients are minerals doesn’t mean a “natural” sunscreen is, in fact, natural. Titanium dioxide and zinc oxide may have originally come out of the earth, but by the time they’re formulated into sunscreens, they’ve been processed and refined. 

How Do 'Natural' Sunscreens Perform?

The effectiveness of some mineral-only sunscreens was called into question last summer, when news reports and Twitter feeds were full of people who claimed they still got burned when using The Honest Company’s SPF 30 sunscreen, with zinc oxide as the only active ingredient. Consumer Reports hasn’t tested The Honest Company’s product. We wanted to include it in our tests this year, but it no longer appears to be on the market. But we have, over the years, tested several “natural” sunscreens, and in our analysis of four years of our sunscreen testing data, we found that just 26 percent of the ones in our tests met their SPF claim. In contrast, 58 percent of chemical sunscreens did. Two mineral sunscreens we looked at this year, Banana Boat Kids Tear-Free, Sting-Free SPF 50 lotion and CVS Kids Sun Lotion SPF 50, registered an SPF 8 in our tests.

We shared our test results with Banana Boat and CVS and asked for a comment. Edgewell Personal Care, the makers of Banana Boat, said: “The lot of Banana Boat Kids SPF 50 lotion tested by Consumer Reports met the rigorous specifications in our manufacturing and testing process, including the level of active ingredients present required to achieve the formula’s SPF value. CVS said: “We commissioned an extensive retesting of our product by the supplier and an independent third party, using industry standard and FDA-approved methodology. The results of this retesting met all product specifications, including the product’s SPF 50 rating." 

Is There an Effective ‘Natural’ Sunscreen?

Even among the ones that did meet their SPF claim, no product with titanium dioxide or zinc oxide or both as the only active ingredients, received higher than an overall Good Rating in our tests. If you want a sunscreen without chemicals, consider Cotz Plus SPF 58, which was the top-scoring “natural” sunscreen in our tests—delivering an SPF of 38 and Very Good UVA protection—or California Baby Super Sensitive SPF 30+, which met its SPF claim and received a Good Rating for UVA and UVB protection.

One likely reason natural sunscreens routinely score so poorly: To provide good protection, sunscreens need to form a uniform film on the skin, and even though most mineral products contain micronized titanium dioxide, zinc oxide, or both, they’re still particles—so they don’t create a smooth, uniform surface.

Our advice: If you can’t find one of our recommended sunscreens, we suggest looking at the list of active ingredients and picking a chemical sunscreen (not one with just titanium dioxide and/or zinc oxide) with an SPF of 40 or higher, because the data from four years of our testing indicate that you have a better shot at getting at least an SPF 30.

Nearly half of people look for a natural sunscreen, according to a new survey of 1,000 sunscreen users from the Consumer Reports

Editor's Note: This article was adapted from the July 2016 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.