Chemical vs Mineral Sunscreen: Which Is Better?

Woman applying sunscreen
What's the difference between chemical and mineral sunscreens, and which one is better for your skin?

By now, we all know that sunscreen is non-negotiable. It should be a part of your morning routine every single day. No, not just during the summer or on days you’re heading to the pool. You should be slathering on the SPF every morning before you go about your day.

Cool and cloudy? Sunscreen. Sitting at your desk all day? Sunscreen. Dead of winter? Sunscreen!

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Damages done to our skin by the sun’s UV rays aren’t reversible. Sunburns and other damage adds up over time. That means that if you want to avoid premature skin aging and deadly skin cancer, you have to start now. Always wear sunscreen, apply liberally, and reapply often.

Now that we’ve got that established, it’s time to talk sunscreens. The store shelves are lined with all kinds of different ones – sprays, lotions, SPF 50+ or SPF 30, water-resistant… How do you know which one is the best for you? To be fair, any sunscreen is better than no sunscreen.

On top of all the different SPFs, formulas, brands, and applications, there are both mineral and chemical sunscreens to choose from. Are you confused on which one to pick, yet?

Before you grab a bottle, let’s talk about the difference between chemical sunscreens and mineral sunblocks. While they both block the sun’s UV rays, they do it in very different ways. This is a great place to start when looking for a sunscreen that’s perfect for your skin.

First, What Are We Blocking?

Woman relaxing in the sun
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Sunscreen protects our skin from harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun. They are always there. There are two types of these rays: UVA rays and UVB rays, both of which will harm your skin. Too much exposure to these rays can play a part in causing skin cancer. Both are always present in sunlight, but they do different kinds of damage to our skin.

UVA rays are more abundant out of the two and penetrate deeper into the skin. They play a big role in long-term skin changes, like wrinkles and other visible signs of skin aging.

UVB rays have a shorter wavelength, so they don’t penetrate as deep as UVA rays. They are mostly absorbed by the outermost layer of the skin. These rays are responsible for more immediate issues, like inflammation and sunburn.

While they cause different kinds of damage to our skin, both UVA and UVB rays can contribute to the risk of skin cancer. We need to block both of them! To make sure your chosen sunscreen blocks both UVA and UVB rays, it needs to be labeled “broad-spectrum.”

Alright, Let’s Talk SPF

SPF stands for “Sun Protection Factor.” The number stands for how well the sunscreen will protect your skin against sunburn. Contrary to popular belief, the number is not really an indicator of how long you can stay in the sun. That SPF number is actually tied to the amount of UV ray exposure, not the amount of time. The number indicates how much of the sun’s UV rays the sunscreen will protect your skin against.

Like the U.S. Food and Drug Administration website illustrates, one hour at 9 AM and 15 minutes at 1 PM can both result in the same amount of UV exposure. You also have to factor in differences in skin type, geographic location, and even if it is cloudy outside. That’s why you can’t really measure sunscreen protection by the length of time. Regardless, we all know that higher SPFs provide higher protection from the sun’s UV rays.

In theory, that means we should buy SPF 100, right? Well, maybe not so fast. Experts do say that anything with an SPF higher than 50 probably doesn’t offer much more protection than SPF 50. Instead, we should be choosing a sunscreen that is preferably somewhere between 30 to 50 SPF and reapplying it often.

Additionally, it’s important to remember that SPF only measures a product’s ability to filter UVB rays. It doesn’t actually measure protection from UVA rays, even if it is a broad-spectrum product. Broad-spectrum means it does block UVA rays, but the number has nothing to do with it. On top of applying SPF liberally, we should also employ other methods of protection. Try to stay in the shade if possible, wear hats, and cover up with clothing.

What is Chemical Sunscreen?

woman sitting in grass putting on sunscreen

It sounds a little scary, especially with the aversion to the word “chemical” in recent years. Don’t be fooled by the C-word here. Chemical sunscreen is the most common kind of sunscreen that you likely think of when someone mentions sun protection. Chemical sunscreens account for more than 90 percent of sunscreens available in the United States. These sunscreens tend to be lighter and sheer because they are designed to absorb into the skin.

This kind of sunscreen will contain one or more of these ingredients: oxybenzone, avobenzone, octinoxate, octisalate, octocrylene, and homosalate. These ingredients actually absorb the sun’s UV rays. Then, through a chemical reaction, the sun’s rays are turned into heat that dissipates from the skin.

Benefits of Chemical Sunscreen

Obviously, the biggest benefit of chemical sunscreen is protecting against UVA and UVB rays from the sun. That’s what it is for, right? Chemical sunscreens are thinner and easier to apply. They spread and absorb into the skin like lotion, making them super easy to use. This also makes them ideal for daily wear, especially under makeup. Because this stuff absorbs into the skin, you don’t have to worry about how it will look on darker skin tones.

You’ll find that you need less product when using chemical sunscreens to protect your skin. Plus, you can often find this kind of sunscreen mixed in with other skincare products you’re probably already going to use. It makes it a lot easier to get your SPF on when it’s inside of your daily moisturizer.

As an added bonus, you can find plenty of water-resistant and sweat-proof chemical sunscreens on the market. This is something that can’t be achieved with the physical barrier of mineral sunscreen.

What is Mineral Sunscreen?

woman in hat putting on sunscreen

Sometimes also called physical sunscreen, mineral sunscreen features active ingredients such as zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. There is no chemical reaction here. The active ingredients actually form a physical barrier – hence the “physical sunscreen” name – that reflects the sun’s UV rays.

Instead of absorbing into the skin, mineral sunscreen sits on the surface as a layer of defense against the sun. This means that they are thicker than chemical sunscreens, and might feel a bit heavier. They can also rub off easier, so don’t forget to reapply!

Thinking of mineral sunscreens can bring to mind that old-school white sunblock that’s difficult to put on and is really visible. There are plenty of mineral sunscreens these days that are easier to apply and manage to not make you look like a camp counselor with a white triangle for a nose. But again, it’s still going to be thicker than a chemical sunscreen.

Benefits of Mineral Sunscreen

Again, the biggest benefit here is the protection against UVA and UVB rays. That’s what we’re here for! But let’s talk about some of the other benefits of reaching for a mineral SPF product.

Mineral sunscreen provides protection to people who have adverse reactions to chemical sunscreens. All those active ingredients found in chemical sunscreen can irritate sensitive skin, as some of them have high rates of skin allergy. On top of that, many mineral products are made without any oils and fragrances, making them non-comedogenic. They won’t clog pores, making them a good choice for acne-prone skin.

Because mineral SPF products don’t absorb into your skin to work, you won’t find weird chemicals making their way into your bloodstream. This is why many baby SPF products are mineral sunblocks instead of chemical ones. Mineral sunscreens are much more environmentally-friendly SPF options, too, particularly for vulnerable aquatic ecosystems. It’s worth noting that ingredients from chemical sunscreens have been directly linked to contributing to coral bleaching.

Regular mineral sunscreen runs the risk of leaving you with a white or ashy appearance if you have a medium or dark skin tone. Luckily, there are now tinted formulas that can help it blend in seamlessly with your natural skin tone.

So, Which Sunscreen Is Better?

woman in a store looking at bottles

Well, there are a lot of factors at play, and there’s no real definitive way to say whether chemical or mineral sunscreen is “the best.” I like environmentally-friendly mineral sunblock most of the time, but sometimes I have to quickly spray myself down with a super-waterproof chemical sunscreen before heading to the beach.

It really comes down to what kind of sunscreen fits best into your lifestyle and your skincare routine. And there’s no rule against using both!

Really, the best sunscreen is the sunscreen you are going to wear! Whether you reach for a mineral sunscreen or a chemical one, you should be slathering on the SPF every single day. Yes, even if it is cloudy and cold. And yes, even if you’re going to be inside for most of the day.

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