We dive deep into the pros and cons of the two main types of sun protection that are necessities in your skincare routine.
“What’s really the difference between a mineral and chemical sunscreen?” Even the most dedicated SPF wearers might be thrown off by this basic question. While there are a few key differences, it all comes down to the ingredients, and the two are quite similar in a number of ways. In this post, we’ll compare mineral and chemical sunscreens so that you can take one step closer to finding the best sun protection for your skin type.
What is mineral sunscreen?
Mineral-based sunscreens — also commonly known as physical sunscreens — are formulated with only zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide as the main active ingredient(s). These two UV filters are also known as inorganic sunscreen ingredients.
There’s a popular belief out there that mineral sunscreens block and reflect the sun’s rays while chemical sunscreens absorb them. However, this isn’t totally true. For the most part, both mineral and chemical sunscreens work by absorbing UV rays and turning them into heat. UV light is divided between UVA (aging rays) and UVB (burning rays); mineral sunscreens predominantly absorb in the UVB spectrum and reflect in the UVA spectrum.
What is chemical sunscreen?
Chemical sunscreens belong to a broad category that describes different types of sunscreens formulated with UV filters that are not zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. Think oxybenzone, avobenzone, octinoxate, homosalate, octisalate, and octocrylene. These UV filters are collectively known as organic sunscreen ingredients.
Similar to mineral sunscreens, chemical sunscreens work by absorbing UV rays and converting them into heat.
Aside from the fact that mineral and chemical sunscreens, for the most part, work the same way, there are a few more common traits shared by these two sunscreen types.
To start, both of these skin-protecting UV filters are applied the same way. They work straight out of the bottle as soon as they’re applied on the skin. You’ll often see a recommended wait time on the bottle after application, but it’s only to allow the formula time to dry and form an even film on the skin for maximum efficacy. As long as you apply an even and generous layer, the sunscreen will do its job of protecting your skin against the sun’s harmful rays.
Both types of sunscreens also need to be reapplied throughout the day. There’s a myth that mineral SPFs don’t need reapplication, but all sunscreens need to be reapplied. This is because we often don’t apply enough in the first place, and sunscreen is constantly being removed from our skin from activities like touching our face and sweating. Reapplication ensures that you’ll be fully protected throughout the day, even after that morning layer wears off.
Lastly, both are made and manufactured in a skin lab. We love the security blanket that the term “natural” provides as much as the next person, but for a UV filter to be deemed safe for daily use, it needs to be professionally processed and refined in a laboratory. If anyone claims that their product is “natural”, don’t be afraid to ask what that really means.
What to look for when choosing a sunscreen
Here are a few things you should consider when picking the right sunscreen for you:
For those with sensitive skin, mineral sunscreens are preferred, as they tend to cause fewer irritation and allergic reactions. Chemical UV filters, such as avobenzone and octocrylene, are known to cause allergies and irritations. If you’ve reacted badly to sunscreens in the past, chances are one of these ingredients were to blame. If you have sensitive and/or acne-prone skin, we always recommend doing a patch test on your hands and neck before a full application on the face, regardless of whether you’re using a mineral or chemical sunscreen.
Chemical sunscreens tend to be more lightweight in texture and have thinner consistencies than mineral sunscreens. The caveat is that these benefits (without comprising the actual efficacy of the formula) tend to be found in more innovative formulas manufactured overseas in Asia and Europe. The United States, unfortunately, has not approved a new UV filter in over a decade. The result is that the chemical sunscreens formulated overseas tend to be made with more advanced active ingredients that have pleasant textures while remaining highly effective.
Mineral sunscreens are notorious for their undesirable white cast. This comes from the natural color of zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, which are both white substances. While we can’t change the inherent color of these UV filters, there are many innovative methods out there today to make the overall SPF formula easily blendable and lightweight. For a lot of mineral sunscreens out there, simply applying and blending like you would with any skincare product will ensure that the white cast disappears. We like to think that our SPF 30 mineral sunscreen, C-Shells, falls into that category!
In recent years, two chemical UV filters — oxybenzone and octinoxate — came under scrutiny due to their potentially hazardous environmental impact. Hawaii became the first state in the U.S. to ban the sale of sunscreen containing these two coral-harming ingredients. While it’s important to be conscious of the impact our skincare ingredients have on the environment, it’s also vital to note that the research on the effect of sunscreen ingredients on coral reefs is relatively new, and there’s few definitive claims that can be made just yet.
While both types of sunscreens have their own share of features and unique ingredients, the verdict lies in what works best for your skin type and what’s currently available to you. If you do your research on the right brand and product, you may find that both sunscreen types may suit your needs. Your favorite sunscreen is the one that you’ll wear everyday, and hopefully, this information will give you the knowledge to choose one that will protect your skin for years to come.