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It’s widely known that sunscreen is beneficial for keeping skin healthy by protecting it from sun damage. There are two main types of sunscreen: chemical and mineral. Both effectively shield skin from the sun’s rays. So which should you choose?
When it comes to mineral versus chemical sunscreen, experts find that mineral is better for human health and the environment. If mineral sunscreen isn’t compatible with your skin type, chemical sunscreen is still a good choice. Let’s look at the pros and cons of each.
What is mineral sunscreen?
Mineral sunscreen, also called physical sunscreen or sunblock, contains active ingredients like zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. These work by forming a physical barrier that absorbs harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays. They also scatter or reflect UV rays away from the skin (Cole, 2016).
Because they create a physical barrier, mineral sunscreens start working right away. Mineral sunscreens are less likely to cause irritation and are recommended if you have more sensitive skin (Solish, 2020).
However, mineral sunscreens are thicker than chemical products and may feel too heavy for some people. Many can leave an ashy, chalky finish when applied, making it not the greatest option for people with darker skin tones. Nowadays, several mineral sunscreens come tinted, making it a viable option for any skin color or complexion.
What is chemical sunscreen?
As the name suggests, this type of sunscreen contains chemicals that absorb UV rays and convert them into non-damaging heat (Solish, 2020).
Some of the most common ingredients used in chemical sunscreens include oxybenzone, avobenzone, octinoxate, homosalate, octocrylene, octisalate, and ensulizole. These ingredients can be irritating, especially if you have sensitive skin.
Chemical sunscreen tends to be thinner and lighter than mineral sunscreen, making it easy for skin to absorb. Additionally, chemical products don’t leave a white film the way some mineral sunscreens do, making it a good option for people of all skin tones.
Unlike mineral sunscreens, chemical sunscreens are not photostable––meaning you have to reapply diligently to get the best protection. Chemical sunscreens also require waiting 15 minutes after applying before going out in the sun (Gabros, 2021).
Mineral vs. chemical sunscreen: is one better?
Both types of sunscreen will protect your skin against sun damage, but when it comes to which is better, mineral sunscreen wins.
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That’s because mineral sunscreens may have fewer health risks and are less harmful to the environment. Some research shows ingredients in chemical sunscreens (like octinoxate, oxybenzone, and homosalate) can cause allergic reactions, reproductive toxicity, and endocrine and hormonal disruption (Serpone, 2021).
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) notes that further studies are needed to evaluate the risks of sunscreen absorption into the skin. For now, chemical sunscreen is safe and effective sun protection for most people (FDA, 2020).
Chemical sunscreen also has harmful effects on the environment. It’s estimated that every year 14,000 tons of sunscreen negatively impact coral reefs and aquatic habitats. This has prompted tropical tourist destinations like Hawaii to ban sunscreens that contain oxybenzone and octinoxate (Ouchene, 2019).
The two main ingredients used in mineral sunscreen––zinc oxide and titanium dioxide––have been marked as safe for use and better for the environment. The FDA recommends products that contain at least SPF 15 to prevent skin cancer and other sun damage (FDA, 2019).
When in doubt, consider the pros and cons of chemical versus mineral sunscreens. Here’s a recap:
As always, wearing any sunscreen is better than none at all. For some people, using a combination of chemical and mineral broad-spectrum sunscreens works.
Whichever sunscreen you choose, be sure to apply it any time you’re out in the sun and reapply frequently throughout the day. At the end of the day, the best sunscreen is the one you’ll use the most consistently.
- Cole, C., Shyr, T., & Ou-Yang, H. (2016). Metal oxide sunscreens protect skin by absorption, not by reflection or scattering. Photodermatology, Photoimmunology & Photomedicine, 32(1), 5–10. doi:10.1111/phpp.12214. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26431814/
- Gabros S., Nessel T. A., & Zito P. M. (2021). Sunscreens and photoprotection. StatPearls. Retrieved on May 31, 2022 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK537164/
- Mansuri, R., Diwan, A., Kumar, H., et al. (2021). Potential of natural compounds as sunscreen agents. Pharmacognosy Reviews, 15(29), 47-56. doi:10.5530/phrev.2021.15.5. Retrieved from https://www.phcogrev.com/sites/default/files/PharmacognRev-15-29-47.pdf
- Ouchene, L., Litvinov, I. V., & Netchiporouk, E. (2019). Hawaii and other jurisdictions ban oxybenzone or octinoxate sunscreens based on the confirmed adverse environmental effects of sunscreen ingredients on aquatic environments. Journal of Cutaneous Medicine and Surgery, 23(6), 648-649. doi:10.1177/1203475419871592. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Lydia-Ouchene/publication/337303921_Hawaii_and_Other_Jurisdictions_Ban_Oxybenzone_or_Octinoxate_Sunscreens_Based_on_the_Confirmed_Adverse_Environmental_Effects_of_Sunscreen_Ingredients_on_Aquatic_Environments/links/603c43bf4585158939d98151/Hawaii-and-Other-Jurisdictions-Ban-Oxybenzone-or-Octinoxate-Sunscreens-Based-on-the-Confirmed-Adverse-Environmental-Effects-of-Sunscreen-Ingredients-on-Aquatic-Environments.pdf
- Serpone, N. (2021). Sunscreens and their usefulness: have we made any progress in the last two decades? Photochemical & Photobiological Sciences, 20(2), 189–244. doi:10.1007/s43630-021-00013-1. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33721254/
- Solish, N., Humphrey, S., Waller, B., et al. (2020). Photoprotection with mineral-based sunscreens. Dermatologic Surgery: Official Publication for American Society for Dermatologic Surgery, 46(12), 1508–1513. doi:10.1097/DSS.0000000000002478. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32541340/
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration. (2020). Shedding more light on sunscreen absorption. Retrieved from https://www.fda.gov/news-events/fda-voices/shedding-more-light-sunscreen-absorption
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration. (2019). FDA advances new proposed regulation to make sure that sunscreens are safe and effective. Retrieved from https://www.fda.gov/news-events/press-announcements/fda-advances-new-proposed-regulation-make-sure-sunscreens-are-safe-and-effective
Dr. Chimene Richa is a board-certified Ophthalmologist and Senior Medical Writer/Reviewer at Ro.