- Mineral sunscreens physically block UV rays, whereas chemical sunscreens filter them.
- Mineral sunscreens generally provide better broad-spectrum protection from the sun.
- Even mineral sunscreens may include small amounts of synthetic ingredients.
Mineral and chemical sunscreens are often sold next to each other in the same aisle at the drugstore, but there are real differences between these two types of products.
Although both provide protection, some individuals find that chemical sunscreens irritate their skin, leading them to seek out other options. However, because beauty products aren’t strictly regulated by the FDA, many sunscreens that claim to be “mineral,” “natural,” or “organic” actually aren’t.
Read on to learn about the differences between mineral and chemical sunscreens, and what ingredients to look out for. Then find out which brands dermatologists recommend.
Mineral ‘Sunblock’ vs. Chemical ‘Sunscreen’
There are only two active ingredients in mineral sunscreens, and not all brands contain both: titanium dioxide and zinc oxide are two naturally-occurring compounds — hence the name “mineral sunscreen” — that protect your skin from the sun by physically blocking incoming UV light.
As for chemical sunscreens, more than 30 synthetic active ingredients can be used in various combinations. Some of the most popular are oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate, and octinoxate. These ingredients absorb light from UV rays, as opposed to physically blocking them, thus protecting your skin from sun damage.
Although people often throw the names around interchangeably, sunblocks (a.k.a. mineral products) and sunscreens (a.k.a. chemical/synthetic products) work differently.
“Sunblocks, when placed on the surface of the skin, reflect sunlight. Sunscreens, when applied to the skin, are absorbed and change the nature of what happens to light as it enters the skin, thereby screening the sun’s effects,” explains Carol Clinton, MD, founder and Medical Director of Timeless Skin Solutions.
But all those UV-fighting ingredients do not necessarily come without side effects.
Certain synthetic ingredients in chemical sunscreens—most notably oxybenzone—have been linked to hormone disruptions of various kinds. While many of the experiments supporting this correlation have only been conducted on rats and still need to be replicated on human subjects, this isn’t the most comforting recommendation for synthetic sunscreen ingredients.
Moreover, some individuals have experienced adverse skin reactions while using chemical sunscreens, including acne, burning, blisters, dryness, itching, rash, redness, stinging, swelling, and tightening of the skin. Such skin irritations often cause people to seek out alternative mineral sunscreens.
UV Radiation and Mineral Sunscreens
Are mineral sunscreens as effective as chemical sunscreens? The answer isn’t so simple.
Two types of UV radiation are transmitted through the atmosphere: UVB rays, which cause sunburns, and UVA rays, which penetrate deeper into the skin. Physical blockers like mineral sunscreen protect against both types of rays, whereas chemical blockers often stop UVB rays but let UVA rays slip though.
“Sunscreen ingredients also absorb varying amounts of UV light,” says Caroline Chang, MD, a board-certified dermatologist practicing in Rhode Island. “This is why most sunscreens utilize a combination of sunscreen ingredients in order to cover the entire range of UVA and UVB exposure, therefore providing broad-spectrum (UVA/UVB) protection.”
“Mineral sunscreens provide the widest range of coverage, covering almost the entire UVA/UVB spectrum,” she adds. “However, there is a small part of the UVA spectrum that is not blocked by mineral sunscreens. Therefore, most mineral sunscreens are formulated with a chemical sunscreen to provide broad-spectrum coverage.”
Yes, you read that correctly: even mineral sunscreens may include small amounts of synthetic ingredients.
In fact, some dermatologists, including Dr. Clinton, recommend wearing mineral sunblock and chemical sunscreen at the same time to achieve maximum sun protection. However, mineral sunscreens are in no way an inferior product to chemical sunscreens, and many believe they do a better job of combating UV rays than the synthetic option.
Choosing a Mineral Sunscreen: Check the Ingredients
Because beauty products aren’t closely regulated by the FDA, a sunscreen that proclaims itself “natural” or “mineral” might not actually be so.
Check the label for titanium dioxide and/or zinc oxide, and keep an eye out for other ingredients ending in -ate and -zone; that may be a sign you’re actually holding a chemical sunscreen, not a mineral-based one.
If you can find it, a combination of titanium dioxide and zinc oxide is better because it will offer more complete sun protection than titanium dioxide alone. Zinc oxide by itself is an excellent protectant against the sun, but it doesn’t absorb well into the skin—if you’ve ever seen the classic white stripe of sunblock across a lifeguard’s cheeks and nose, it was probably zinc oxide.
Generally speaking, the higher the percentage of active ingredients, whatever they are, the more thorough the deflection of UV rays. Looking for broad spectrum sun protection, as Dr. Chang mentioned, is also key to any good sunscreen; after all, you want to protect against all UV rays, not just some.
Know that mineral sunscreens might take more time to absorb into your skin than a chemical sunscreen, but this does not mean they are not working. Unlike chemical sunscreens, minerals effectively block sun rays immediately.
Depending on how much you apply (and you should be thoroughly coating yourself before you go into the sun) you might want to take an extra minute to rub it in if you don’t want its characteristic white film to be visible on your skin.
Best Mineral Sunscreens to Buy
Because there are so many sunscreens out there, not to mention all the misleading labels, we asked dermatologists to tell us their favorite mineral sunscreens to use. Here are their recommended picks.
“It is an excellent lightly tinted, water-resistant, mineral-based sunscreen with antioxidants that neutralize free radicals,” says Dr. Jennifer Chwalek of Union Square Laser Dermatology in New York City. “I recommend it to my patients because it is fragrance-free, oil-free, paraben-free, noncomedogenic, and covers redness, making it ideal for even post-procedural or sensitive skin.”
Dr. Chang seconds this pick. “This is my favorite sunscreen for acne-prone or oily skin. It is lightweight on the skin and has no fragrance,” she says.
Dr. Clinton, an avid runner and biker, likes Colorescience’s mineral powder formula because the color keeps the sunblock from going on white, like other mineral products.
“If you are looking for a high-quality mineral-based sunscreen, the rules are titanium and zinc oxide and little else, except a bit of tone to stop the white appearance when applied to the skin,” she says. “Colorescience has an awesome sunblock brush that comes in several different tones.” For maximum sun protection, Dr. Clinton layers Colorescience over a chemical sunscreen, SkinMedica Total Defense and Repair.
“ALASTIN HydraTint just cut my morning regimen in half. It’s a moisturizer, foundation, and broad-spectrum sun protector all in one,” says Dr. Shari F. Topper, a board-certified dermatologist practicing in Florida. “The mineral shimmer is absolutely gorgeous.”
“It’s exactly what I’ve been looking for—an all-in-one product in a beautiful formulation and convenient pump. It goes on easily, feels lightweight, looks great, and is easy to remove,” says Dr. Roberta F. Palestine, founder and medical director of Rocklege MedSpa.
Whatever sunscreen you pick, be sure to follow the directions and reapply often, as reducing your sun exposure is one of the best ways to prevent premature aging.
» If you already have some sun damage you would like to undo, or if you think your skin is particularly susceptible to the sun, use Zwivel’s forum to ask cosmetic doctors for advice.