Are natural sunscreens effective?

Last Updated:

On their own, natural sunscreens (including oral supplements and plant oils) have not been shown to be sufficiently effective on their own for protecting your skin from the sun's damaging effects. Some can be combined with proven sun-protection methods (sunscreen, clothing, shade) to offer additional sun protection. None should be used as a replacement for sunscreen.

The skincare industry generated over $5.6 billion in sales in 2018 alone. The brands marketed as “natural” led the pack and were the top contributors to market growth.

Plant oils, extracts, and supplements have received a lot of attention as potential natural alternatives to replace commercial sunscreen products. So are there any out there that work? Let's find out.

A primer on ultraviolet radiation

Excessive unprotected exposure to solar radiation can promote skin aging and skin cancer. Especially dangerous is the ultraviolet (UV) spectrum,[1][2][3][4][5] whose wavelength is shorter than that of visible light but longer than that of X-rays.

Sun radiation wavelengths in nanometers


The main culprits are UVA and UVB radiation; UVA accounting for 95% of UV rays reaching Earth’s surface and UVB for 5%. Together, they can induce sunburns, DNA damage, and accelerate skin aging.[1][3]

When used correctly and consistently, sunscreens can mitigate sun-induced skin aging (i.e., photoaging) and reduce the risk of skin cancer.

Can plant oils protect me?

In general, it's recommended that you use a broad-spectrum sunscreen (i.e., UVA + UVB protection) with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30, at minimum, or 40 if you burn easily. So, are natural plant oils up for the challenge?

In short, not really. At least not on their own.

When tested for protection against just UVB radiation, many plant oils provide an SPF of <8.[6] These oils can be incorporated into commercial sunscreen products to help the overall SPF rating, but on their own, they are insufficient for UV protection.

Reliability can also be an issue if plant-based formulas are made at home. Sunscreens are formulated using specific ingredients in specific amounts in addition to employing manufacturing methods to help ensure these UV-protective ingredients are evenly distributed throughout the sunscreen. This process is challenging to replicate at home.

A note of caution — some of these plant oils can cause allergic reactions or skin irritation.[7][8] These reactions can range from minor to severe.

Sun protection factor (SPF) values of plant oils


Adapted from Kaur and Saraf. Pharmacognosy Res. 2010.[6]

Note that the above chart only takes into account protection against UVB radiation. In some cases, when SPF against both UVB and UVA is measured, these values drop even lower. For example, coconut oil offers an SPF of 7 for just UVB[6] but an SPF of ≤1 against UVA + UVB.[9]

Plant oils alone should not be used to wholly replace sunscreen, as they do not provide adequate protection. However, they may be used as an ingredient in some sunscreens to boost the overall SPF rating.

Can supplements protect me?


When using specially processed high-flavanol cocoa powders or chocolate, three RCTs (almost all in females with Fitzpatrick skin types 2 or 3) saw a modest improvement in the skin’s ability to resist UV damage after 6 weeks of supplementation.[10][11][12]

The results are promising and fairly consistent across the existing trials. Consider this supplement “one to watch” as further trials get published.

Fitzpatrick skin type scale


Polypodium leucotomos

In both animal and human trials, Polypodium leucotomos (P. leucotomos) has demonstrated an ability to reduce UV-caused skin cell damage, DNA damage, and oxidative stress.[13] In just the human trials, both short (<1 week)[14][15][16][17][18][19] and long-term (1- to 3-month) trials[20][21][22] have seen consistent results.

One limitation is that nearly all of these studies were conducted in people with Fitzpatrick skin types 1–3. The effects of P. leucotomos on skin types 4–6 are understudied at the moment.

A note of caution — the estimated SPF protection of P. leucotomos is ≈4.[19] This is well below the recommended level of at least 30. It should not be used as a sunscreen replacement.


Astaxanthin, a powerful antioxidant, may help to reduce DNA damage caused by UV radiation.[23][24]. Yet, the research to date has been spotty and not very high quality.[23][25][26][27] Better research is needed before firm conclusions can be made about its effectiveness.

Rosemary and Grapefruit Extract

Two promising human trials have examined a combination of rosemary and grapefruit extracts for UV protection.

The first was a small pilot trial in 10 subjects[28] and the second was a follow-up study that randomized 90 subjects.[29] In both trials, the combination was able to increase UV tolerance and reduce markers of oxidative damage in the skin.

Despite the promising results, firm conclusions can't yet be drawn on such limited data.

Vitamin E

While animal and cell studies have indicated vitamin E is a candidate for UV protection,[30][31] human trials have given mixed (but promising) results for both topical applications[32][33][34][35][36] and when orally supplemented.[37][38][39][40][41]

Another wrinkle — many studies have tested vitamin E as a part of a multi-ingredient formula, making it very difficult to say what the effect of this vitamin used alone might be.

Supplements alone should not be used to wholly replace sunscreen. Of the supplements reviewed above, Polypodium leucotomos has the strongest evidence indicating it can deliver a small amount of UV protection.

What about sunscreens labeled as “natural” or “clean”?

In the US, the terms “clean” and “natural” are not defined or regulated when it comes to skincare products.[42] The inclusion of these terms on the label does not offer any assurances that the product is safer for consumers compared to products that don’t contain these labels.

However, there are two natural sunscreen ingredients that have a proven track record — zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. Often referred to as physical chemical barriers (aka inorganic chemical barriers or mineral sunscreens), these naturally occurring compounds function by reflecting and dissipating UV rays.

Bottom line

The terms “clean” and “natural” are unregulated in the US and don’t guarantee any advantage over traditional sunscreen products. However, zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are two naural ingredients that have proven UV-protective abilities.

There is no plant oil or extract that can replace sunscreen. Plant oils may be combined with sunscreens to boost their overall efficacy, but beware that they can also cause allergic skin reactions or irritations in some people.

There is no supplement that can replace sunscreen. Of the ones studied, Polypodium leucotomos shows the greatest promise for possibly acting synergistically when used in tandem with sunscreen or other sun protection methods.

1.^Sérgio Schalka, Denise Steiner, Flávia Naranjo Ravelli, Tatiana Steiner, Aripuanã Cobério Terena, Carolina Reato Marçon, Eloisa Leis Ayres, Flávia Alvim Sant'anna Addor, Helio Amante Miot, Humberto Ponzio, Ida Duarte, Jane Neffá, José Antônio Jabur da Cunha, Juliana Catucci Boza, Luciana de Paula Samorano, Marcelo de Paula Corrêa, Marcus Maia, Nilton Nasser, Olga Maria Rodrigues Ribeiro Leite, Otávio Sergio Lopes, Pedro Dantas Oliveira, Renata Leal Bregunci Meyer, Tânia Cestari, Vitor Manoel Silva dos Reis, Vitória Regina Pedreira de Almeida Rego, Brazilian Society of DermatologyBrazilian Consensus on PhotoprotectionAn Bras Dermatol.(Nov-Dec 2014)
2.^Jean Krutmann, Anne Bouloc, Gabrielle Sore, Bruno A Bernard, Thierry PasseronThe Skin Aging ExposomeJ Dermatol Sci.(2017 Mar)
3.^Uraiwan Panich, Gunya Sittithumcharee, Natwarath Rathviboon, Siwanon JirawatnotaiUltraviolet Radiation-Induced Skin Aging: The Role of DNA Damage and Oxidative Stress in Epidermal Stem Cell Damage Mediated Skin AgingStem Cells Int.(2016)
4.^Barbara A GilchrestPhotoagingJ Invest Dermatol.(2013 Jul 1)
5.^L L Hruza, A P PentlandMechanisms of UV-induced InflammationJ Invest Dermatol.(1993 Jan)
6.^Chanchal Deep Kaur, Swarnlata SarafIn Vitro Sun Protection Factor Determination of Herbal Oils Used in CosmeticsPharmacognosy Res.(2010 Jan)
7.^David A Kiken, David E CohenContact Dermatitis to Botanical ExtractsAm J Contact Dermat.(2002 Sep)
8.^M Corazza, A Borghi, M M Lauriola, A VirgiliUse of Topical Herbal Remedies and Cosmetics: A Questionnaire-Based Investigation in Dermatology Out-PatientsJ Eur Acad Dermatol Venereol.(2009 Nov)
9.^S Gause, A ChauhanUV-blocking Potential of Oils and JuicesInt J Cosmet Sci.(2016 Aug)
12.^Williams S, Tamburic S, Lally CEating chocolate can significantly protect the skin from UV lightJ Cosmet Dermatol.(2009 Sep)
13.^Brian Berman, Charles Ellis, Craig ElmetsPolypodium Leucotomos--An Overview of Basic Investigative FindingsJ Drugs Dermatol.(2016 Feb)
14.^Middelkamp-Hup MA, Pathak MA, Parrado C, Goukassian D, Rius-Díaz F, Mihm MC, Fitzpatrick TB, González SOral Polypodium leucotomos extract decreases ultraviolet-induced damage of human skinJ Am Acad Dermatol.(2004 Dec)
15.^Indermeet Kohli, Rubina Shafi, Prescilia Isedeh, James L Griffith, Mohammed S Al-Jamal, Narumol Silpa-Archa, Bradford Jackson, Mohammed Athar, Nikiforos Kollias, Craig A Elmets, Henry W Lim, Iltefat H HamzaviThe Impact of Oral Polypodium Leucotomos Extract on Ultraviolet B Response: A Human Clinical StudyJ Am Acad Dermatol.(2017 Jul)
16.^P Aguilera, C Carrera, J A Puig-Butille, C Badenas, M Lecha, S González, J Malvehy, S PuigBenefits of Oral Polypodium Leucotomos Extract in MM High-Risk PatientsJ Eur Acad Dermatol Venereol.(2013 Sep)
17.^Adriana Villa, Martha H Viera, Sadegh Amini, Ran Huo, Oliver Perez, Phillip Ruiz, Alexandra Amador, George Elgart, Brian BermanDecrease of Ultraviolet A Light-Induced "Common Deletion" in Healthy Volunteers After Oral Polypodium Leucotomos Extract Supplement in a Randomized Clinical TrialJ Am Acad Dermatol.(2010 Mar)
18.^Maritza A Middelkamp-Hup, Madhu A Pathak, Concepcion Parrado, Tomas Garcia-Caballero, Francisca Rius-Díaz, Thomas B Fitzpatrick, Salvador GonzálezOrally Administered Polypodium Leucotomos Extract Decreases psoralen-UVA-induced Phototoxicity, Pigmentation, and Damage of Human SkinJ Am Acad Dermatol.(2004 Jan)
21.^Mark S Nestor, Brian Berman, Nicole SwensonSafety and Efficacy of Oral Polypodium Leucotomos Extract in Healthy Adult SubjectsJ Clin Aesthet Dermatol.(2015 Feb)
22.^Adrian Tanew, Sonja Radakovic, Salvador Gonzalez, Marina Venturini, Piergiacomo Calzavara-PintonOral administration of a hydrophilic extract of Polypodium leucotomos for the prevention of polymorphic light eruptionJ Am Acad Dermatol.(2012 Jan)
23.^Natalya E Chalyk, Viktor A Klochkov, Tatiana Y Bandaletova, Nigel H Kyle, Ivan M PetyaevContinuous Astaxanthin Intake Reduces Oxidative Stress and Reverses Age-Related Morphological Changes of Residual Skin Surface Components in Middle-Aged VolunteersNutr Res.(2017 Dec)
25.^Tominaga K, Hongo N, Karato M, Yamashita ECosmetic benefits of astaxanthin on humans subjectsActa Biochim Pol.(2012)
26.^Tominaga K, Hongo N, Fujishita M, Takahashi Y, Adachi YProtective effects of astaxanthin on skin deteriorationJ Clin Biochem Nutr.(2017 Jul)
28.^A Pérez-Sánchez, E Barrajón-Catalán, N Caturla, J Castillo, O Benavente-García, M Alcaraz, V MicolProtective Effects of Citrus and Rosemary Extracts on UV-induced Damage in Skin Cell Model and Human VolunteersJ Photochem Photobiol B.(2014 Jul 5)
29.^Vincenzo Nobile, Angela Michelotti, Enza Cestone, Nuria Caturla, Julián Castillo, Obdulio Benavente-García, Almudena Pérez-Sánchez, Vicente MicolSkin Photoprotective and Antiageing Effects of a Combination of Rosemary (Rosmarinus Officinalis) and Grapefruit (Citrus Paradisi) PolyphenolsFood Nutr Res.(2016 Jul 1)
30.^Aleksandar Godic, Borut Poljšak, Metka Adamic, Raja DahmaneThe Role of Antioxidants in Skin Cancer Prevention and TreatmentOxid Med Cell Longev.(2014)
31.^Jens J Thiele, Swarna Ekanayake-MudiyanselageVitamin E in Human Skin: Organ-Specific Physiology and Considerations for Its Use in DermatologyMol Aspects Med.(Oct-Dec 2007)
32.^Alexandra Mereniuk, Philippe Marchessault, Catherine Maari, Chantal Bolduc, Robert BissonnetteTopical Vitamin E Cream Does Not Prevent Visible Light-Induced PigmentationJ Cutan Med Surg.(Jan/Feb 2018)
34.^Jin Ho Chung, Jin Young Seo, Mi Kyoung Lee, Hee Chul Eun, Joo Heung Lee, Sewon Kang, Gary J Fisher, John J VoorheesUltraviolet Modulation of Human Macrophage Metalloelastase in Human Skin in VivoJ Invest Dermatol.(2002 Aug)
35.^F Dreher, N Denig, B Gabard, D A Schwindt, H I MaibachEffect of Topical Antioxidants on UV-induced Erythema Formation When Administered After ExposureDermatology.(1999)
37.^Frank McArdle, Lesley E Rhodes, Richard A G Parslew, Graeme L Close, Catherine I A Jack, Peter S Friedmann, Malcolm J JacksonEffects of Oral Vitamin E and Beta-Carotene Supplementation on Ultraviolet Radiation-Induced Oxidative Stress in Human SkinAm J Clin Nutr.(2004 Nov)
38.^Homero Mireles-Rocha, Ignacio Galindo, Miguel Huerta, Benjamín Trujillo-Hernández, Alejandro Elizalde, Roberto Cortés-FrancoUVB Photoprotection With Antioxidants: Effects of Oral Therapy With D-Alpha-Tocopherol and Ascorbic Acid on the Minimal Erythema DoseActa Derm Venereol.(2002)
39.^W Stahl, U Heinrich, H Jungmann, H Sies, H TronnierCarotenoids and Carotenoids Plus Vitamin E Protect Against Ultraviolet Light-Induced Erythema in HumansAm J Clin Nutr.(2000 Mar)
41.^K Werninghaus, M Meydani, J Bhawan, R Margolis, J B Blumberg, B A GilchrestEvaluation of the Photoprotective Effect of Oral Vitamin E SupplementationArch Dermatol.(1994 Oct)
42.^Courtney Blair Rubin, Bruce BrodNatural Does Not Mean Safe-The Dirt on Clean Beauty ProductsJAMA Dermatol.(2019 Sep 25)