In past years, we’ve had disappointing results when testing “natural” sunscreens (also called mineral sunscreens), those with only titanium dioxide or zinc oxide (or both) as UV filters. Products in this category have consistently performed less effectively in our testing than their chemical cousins.

In a 2016 report from the Consumer Reports National Research Center, nearly half of the 1,000 sunscreen users surveyed said they look for a “natural” product when shopping for sunscreen. So, this year we added more natural sunscreens to our tests and included products with higher concentrations of the active ingredients than we did before.

Seasonal Safety

According to the Personal Care Products Council, there’s no performance difference between chemical and mineral active ingredients. But in our testing, we haven’t been able to find a mineral product that delivers the whole package: top-notch UVA and UVB protection as well as minimal variation from SPF. While a "natural” sunscreen provides some protection, if you trust your skin to one of these products, you could be getting more UV damage than you think. 

Of the 15 mineral sunscreens in our tests, just two received an Excellent rating for variation from SPF, meaning that they tested at at least 85 percent of the SPF listed on the label. Eleven received Fair or Poor scores for UVB (SPF) protection. Five had Excellent scores for UVA protection, but none of these rated higher than Fair for UVB protection.

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. 

Is There an Effective ‘Natural’ Sunscreen?

Even among the sunscreens with an Excellent or Very Good variation from SPF rating, 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 California Kids #Supersensitive Lotion SPF 30+. It was the highest-performing "natural" sunscreen in our tests. It has an overall Good rating, a Very Good score for UVB protection, and an Excellent variation from SPF rating. But it rated only Fair for UVA protection. 

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 our testing over the years indicates that this will give you 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 also appeared in the July 2016 issue of Consumer Reports magazine and was updated with information from the July 2017 issue of the magazine.