Trying to take good care of your skin can often feel like a confusing, time-consuming project that never ends. Eat this, avoid that, use this treatment, sacrifice a baby goat on the side of a mountain, drink lots of water… It’s almost enough to overwhelm even the most seasoned skincare expert. (And trust me, we do get overwhelmed with it all too!)
Sure, there are a lot of creams and serums out there that can help improve your complexion. And using the right combination of non-comedogenic skincare products can definitely help do wonders for blurring your pores, erasing your fine lines, and taking years of damage off your face.
However, if there’s one thing that can make a world of difference, it’s to take a closer look at your relationship with that big glowing orb in the sky. Sure, a golden tan can look healthy on the surface, but too much sun exposure is arguably one of the worst things you can do to your skin.
Not only are you opening the door to sunburns and melasma (those splotches of discoloration that can randomly crop up on your face), but the fact is that photodamage can add years of unwanted premature aging to your face. We’re talking fine lines, sagging, and cancerous lesions that can lead to skin cancer running amok on your face and body.1
Fortunately, the right non-pore-clogging sunscreen can help protect your skin from all of these nasty side effects of sun damage. Even better, many modern sunscreens are super cosmetically elegant these days, which means that if you choose a tinted mineral sunscreen, it won’t leave a greasy texture or a white cast on your skin.
Pretty awesome, right? Yep, there’s literally no excuse anymore to not reach for sunscreen when stepping out the door. Let’s go ahead and break down the deets on mineral vs. chemical sunscreen.
What is Mineral Sunscreen?
Also known as “physical sunscreen,” mineral sunscreen is a type of sunscreen that creates a physical barrier on the skin's surface to block out those harmful rays. Typically, it contains ingredients like titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, which act as a protective layer on your skin. These are the ONLY two sunscreen ingredients that count as minerals. All the others like homosalate and octocrylene and avobenzone, etc are referred to collectively as the “chemical sunscreens”. We feel these should be avoided at all times, especially on the face.
What is Chemical Sunscreen?
Here’s the deal with chemical sunscreens. Chemical sunscreens contain ingredients like avobenzone, homosalate, octinoxate, octisalate, octocrylene, and oxybenzone (basically anything not zinc or titanium). In the case of sunscreen, if you can’t pronounce it you shouldn’t wear it.2
How Do Chemical and Mineral Sunscreens Work?
If you’re wondering how chemical and mineral sunscreens work, it’s best to think of them in terms of an analogy. To put it into perspective, try to imagine mineral sunscreen like an actual protective wall around your skin, shielding you from the damaging effects of the sun.
When the sunlight reaches your skin, the rays will simply bounce off it harmlessly instead of being absorbed into your body. On the other hand, chemical sunscreens don’t actually block the UV rays. Instead, they sort of soak them up like a little sponge on your body and create this chemical reaction where the UV light turns into heat.3
From there, the heat just sort of dissipates harmlessly (supposedly) away from your skin, sparing you from the sun’s wrath. Curiously enough, chemical sunscreens tend to be much more popular than mineral sunscreens, and they outnumber their less popular sunscreen sibling by making up 96.6% of all sunscreens on the market.4 This is because the chemical ones go on sheer and thin, which is the consistency most consumers prefer.
That doesn’t mean that mineral sunscreen isn’t just as good as chemical sunscreen, though. Just because chemical sunscreen is more popular doesn’t mean it’s better. In fact, most experts tend to agree that one type of sunscreen is better than the other by a fairly sizable margin… and that accolade goes to mineral sunscreens.
Curious to know why? We were sort of hoping you’d ask, since we’re pretty passionate about this kind of thing. Let’s go ahead and break down why we’re team mineral sunscreen all the way.
Mineral vs. Chemical Sunscreen: Is One Type Safer?
When it comes to your safety – especially when we’re talking about sun damage – you really don’t want to take any chances with it. Not only does UV ray photodamage accelerate aging, but the sad truth is that nearly 100,000 people will be diagnosed with malignant melanoma this year, and of those numbers, nearly 8,000 of them will perish.5
However, that’s not the only reason that you need to take a closer look at the safety and efficacy of the sunscreen you use. Even though mineral sunscreen is historically less popular than chemical sunscreen, that doesn't change the fact that it’s seriously so much safer than its counterpart.
Take, for example, one pretty scary study that revealed that the active ingredients in chemical sunscreen (like ecamsule, avobenzone, octocrylene, and oxybenzone) are actually absorbed into the bloodstream. Not only that, but those levels exceeded the maximum amount that the FDA agreed was within safe, non-toxic boundaries.6
Mineral sunscreen, though, has no such toxic byproducts. Both titanium dioxide and zinc oxide are recognized as safe by the FDA, and they’re not going to leach scary chemicals into your body.
Look at it this way, friends: if you’re going to take that extra step to take care of your skin on the outside, why would you just wanna turn around and poison yourself on the inside? Yes, chemical sunscreen is better than nothing (it’s better to use a chemical SPF than just go bare and risk a burn). But when comparing mineral vs. chemical, mineral sunscreen is the far better choice.
The Pros and Cons of Mineral and Chemical Sunscreens
At the end of the day, using any sunscreen – even if it may not be the best fit for your skincare needs – is better than using no sunscreen at all. With that in mind, both kinds do come with their own pros and cons. And once you know the differences between them, you can make a better-informed decision about which one is better suited for your needs.
Pros of Mineral Sunscreen
In most cases, choosing a mineral sunscreen is going to be your best bet, no question about it. What are the benefits of mineral sunscreen, though? Let’s break ‘em down.
- Mineral sunscreens are naturally broad-spectrum protected. Both zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are able to block the full array of UVA and UVB rays, which means you can rest assured you’ll be protected when choosing this type of sunblock.7
- Mineral sunscreen is great for people with sensitive skin types. The ingredients in them tend to be quite gentle, and furthermore, they’re not acnegenic (which means they won’t inflame acne breakouts). Even better, zinc oxide is a known healing agent, which means it can help clear up any existing spots on your face and body.8
- Mineral sunscreens contain safer ingredients. The sun-blocking agents in chemical sunscreens can be quite toxic, whereas those found in mineral sunscreens are tagged as “GRAS” (generally recognized as safe) by the FDA.9
- Mineral sunscreens start working immediately. Unlike chemical sunscreens, which you need to apply up to a half-hour or more before you go outside, mineral sunscreens are effective as soon as you apply them.10
- Mineral sunscreens don’t need to be applied as often. You’ve probably heard that you need to reapply sunscreen every two hours. While you definitely want to touch up your mineral sunscreen if you sweat or get wet or anything like that, the chemicals don’t break down as fast when exposed to UV light as do those in chemical sunscreen.10
- Mineral sunscreens are reef-safe. If you’re planning on taking your sunscreen to the beach, you may want to reach for mineral sunscreen if you’re going to be splashing in the water. The ingredients in chemical sunscreen are definitely not environmentally friendly, but you don’t have to worry about that when using mineral sunscreen.11
- Mineral sunscreen is easy to apply and easy to remove. If you’re using a brush-on mineral sunscreen, you can apply it just like your favorite cosmetic powder. And if you’re wondering how to remove mineral sunscreen, simply use your favorite cleanser or micellar water to wipe it off.
Cons of Mineral Sunscreen
We’re not going to tell you that mineral sunscreen is perfect and has no issues whatsoever, though. Here are a few things you need to know about the possible downsides of using it.
- Some brands of mineral sunscreen can leave a “white cast” on your skin. Both titanium dioxide and zinc oxide are white in nature, which can leave a light-colored residue on your skin. However, some mineral sunscreens are mixed with tinted ingredients that make this a non-issue, which means that deeper-skinned people don’t have to worry about that.
- Mineral sunscreen can feel a bit heavier than chemical sunscreen. If you’re bothered by layering thick ingredients on your skin, a mineral sunscreen might be a bit of a turn-off. In those cases, you may want to reach for a powder mineral sunscreen instead of a cream-based formula, since it goes on much lighter and may feel more breathable.
Pros of Chemical Sunscreen
If you’ve been thinking about reaching for a chemical sunscreen, but you’re not quite sure what benefits it may have, don’t worry. You’ve come to the right place.
- You can use less chemical sunscreen than physical sunscreen. Because the formula tends to be somewhat thinner than mineral sunscreen, you can apply less of it.
- It does provide sun protection. Of course, this is the bare minimum you’d want to expect from your sunscreen.
- Chemical sunscreen doesn’t leave a white cast. Due to the nature of its composition, you don’t have to worry about looking glow-in-the-dark while wearing it.
Cons of Chemical Sunscreen
Unfortunately, the cons of chemical sunscreen outweigh the pros. This makes it a much less viable option when compared to mineral sunscreen.
- Chemical sunscreen breaks down faster. Because the ingredients convert into heat, they tend to erode quicker than mineral sunscreen.10
- Chemical sunscreen isn’t reef safe. Wearing this type of sunscreen at the beach can wind up harming our planet’s delicate ecosystem.11
- Chemical sunscreen can cause allergic reactions. If you have sensitive skin, or you’re prone to allergies, then you definitely should veer away from this type of sunscreen.13
- Chemical sunscreen can contain dangerous levels of toxins. Since we don’t know the long-term effects of using it, the dangers far outweigh the benefits when compared to mineral sunscreen. However, the potential for developing skin cancer is far too great to gamble with.6
- Chemical sunscreen can also lead to melasma. You know those brown spots that we talked about earlier? Because heat is a catalyst for melasma, this kind of sunscreen can make it worse.14
- Chemical sunscreen can make rosacea worse. Remember what we said about heat? Same story. If you have rosacea, then you’ll want to avoid chemical sunscreen.15
- Chemical sunscreen is not recognized as pregnancy-safe. The chemicals in most of these are known as endocrine (hormone disruptors) and can cause a cascade effect in the body, especially dangerous if pregnant.
- Chemical sunscreens can cause irritation and premature aging around the eyes. You’ve for sure experienced the burn around your eyes from a chemical sunscreen at some point in your life. This is a sure sign of irritation, and irritation around the delicate eye area should be avoided at all costs otherwise we get wrinkles faster.
- Not all chemical sunscreens are broad-spectrum. You want to block both UVA and UVB ray radiation, but some types of chemical sunscreen can let these dangerous rays in.16
- Chemical sunscreen also takes longer to work. You need to apply it at least fifteen minutes to a half an hour before you go outside. Who’s got time for that?16
- Finally, chemical sunscreen can irritate or cause acne. Some of the ingredients in chemical sunscreen have been shown to be acnegenic, so if you’re acne-prone, then you may want to avoid it.3
So, Which Sunscreen Type is Better?
When it comes to wearing sunscreen, it’s safe to say that there are stark differences between chemical and physical sunscreen. Sure, applying an inferior sunscreen is better than skipping it altogether, but it’s always a better idea to reach for the kind that works… but without dangerous side effects.
In the mineral vs. chemical sunscreen debate, it’s clear that mineral sunscreen is the obvious winner. It’s better for sensitive skin, it’s better for your health, and it’s better for the environment, as well. And since some formulas include tints that neutralize the white cast, there’s no reason to not choose it.
Of course, what really matters is finding one that you actually like and will actually use. Whether you’re looking to spend a day on the beach, or you’re feeling like a long hike in nature, be sure to pack your mineral sunscreen with you. Your skin – and the rest of your body – will thank you for it!
- Effect of the sun on visible clinical signs of aging in Caucasian skin. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3790843/
- Sunscreen products: Rationale for use, formulation development and regulatory considerations. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6978633/
- Sunscreening Agents. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3543289/
- Assessing the current market of sunscreen: a cross-sectional study of sunscreen availability in three metropolitan counties in the United States. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24955250/
- Key Statistics for Melanoma Skin Cancer. https://www.cancer.org/cancer/melanoma-skin-cancer/about/key-statistics.html
- Shedding More Light on Sunscreen Absorption. https://www.fda.gov/news-events/fda-voices/shedding-more-light-sunscreen-absorption
- Titanium dioxide and zinc oxide nanoparticles in sunscreens: focus on their safety and effectiveness. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3781714/
- Studies on zinc in wound healinghttps://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/2275309/
- Ensuring the Safety of Sunscreens, and Their Efficacy in Preventing Skin Cancers: Challenges and Controversies for Clinicians, Formulators, and Regulators. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6736991/
- Sunscreens And Photoprotection. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK537164/
- Skincare Chemicals and Coral Reefs. https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/news/sunscreen-corals.html
- UV Radiation and the Skin. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3709783/
- Adverse Reactions to Sunscreens. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/34698020/
- The Role of Sunscreen in Melasma and Postinflammatory Hyperpigmentation. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6986132/
- How to prevent rosacea flare-ups. https://www.aad.org/public/diseases/rosacea/triggers/prevent
- Sunscreens. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4577364/