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The Difference Between Chemical & Mineral Sunscreen

You know sunscreen is important. You know you need to apply it on the reg. But do you know that there are two very distinct types of sunscreen formulations? Allow us to explain…

As beauty products go, sunscreens can be a lot to wrap your head around. You know where you are with cleansers, right? Even moisturizers, for the most part, are fairly simple guys. But sunscreens are far more complicated. Not only do you have things like SPF, UVA and UVB to get to grips with, but terms like ‘broad-spectrum,’ ‘photostability’ and ‘noncomedogenic’ also get thrown into the pot and, well, mind… officially… blown.

The good news is you don’t need to be a complete sun protection know-it-all – that’s what sunscreen manufacturers, skincare experts and dermatologists are for. But it is useful to understand a few things in order to avoid sun damage, do the absolute best for your skin, and make fair judgements when choosing the right products for your needs and concerns.

On that note, today’s lesson is all about the two main types of sunscreen available to you: chemical and mineral. What’s the difference and which is best? Let’s have a look, shall we?

What Are Chemical Sunscreens?

Chemical sunscreens use active chemical ingredients (although you probably guessed that much) to protect your skin from the sun. They do so by absorbing UV radiation like a sponge just below the surface of your skin. These UV rays are then broken down into heat and released through your skin. Typical chemical sunscreens include ingredients like oxybenzone, octisalate, avobenzone, octocrylene and octinoxate.

Granted, these chemicals are pretty clever and due to their molecular structure, they allow for sunscreen formulas to be lightweight, sheer and ideal for everyday use. However, there are some potential downsides. Many experts believe that some of these chemicals are being absorbed by the body way too much, possibly causing hormonal disruption and cell damage. Other studies have shown that certain chemicals sunscreens like oxybenzone may have an environmental impact, negatively affecting our planet’s waterways and marine life.

In 2019, the FDA proposed some regulation changes to chemical sunscreen ingredients and, while this proposal did not categorically deem these ingredients to be unsafe, it did state that more information and research was needed before they were proposed safe and effective.  

Because of all this, many companies have completely stopped using certain chemical sunscreen ingredients in their formulations. Hawaii has even banned some of them. Oxybenzone is one of the main offenders, even though much work is still to be done to prove hands-down that chemical sunscreens are harmful to humans and the environment.

The Pros Of Chemical Sunscreen

  • Lightweight & easy to apply check
  • Long-lasting check
  • Great for all skin tones check

The Cons Of Chemical Sunscreen

  • Must be applied at least 20 minutes before sun exposure 
  • Not ideal for acne-prone or sensitive skin
  • Potentially harmful to your health & the environment

What Are Mineral Sunscreens?

Also known as physical sunscreens, mineral sunscreens contain active mineral ingredients that sit on the surface of your skin to form a physical, reflective barrier against the sun’s rays. (Although some research suggests absorption may also be at play.) One thing's for certain, they're super effective at stopping those rays from penetrating and potentially damaging your skin. Typical mineral sun blockers are zinc oxide and titanium dioxide which both offer natural, broad spectrum protection and are consequently the only two sunscreen ingredients currently proposed safe and effective by the FDA.

Mineral sunscreens naturally protect your skin against both UVA and UVB radiation (not all chemical sunscreens do that), are less irritating than chemical sunscreens and they also provide instant protection – you need to apply chemical ones a good 20 minutes before exposure.

So, what’s the catch? Well, mineral sunscreens have historically been thick, sticky and harder to apply and, because they sit on the surface of  your skin, they tend to rub off more easily. However, thanks to technology moving on in leaps and bounds over the last few decades, those gloopy white, impossible-to-spread sunscreens you remember as a child are no longer the norm. 

The Pros Of Mineral Sunscreen

  • Works immediately check
  • Effective for all skin types check
  • Safe for your health & the environment check

The Cons Of Mineral Sunscreen

  • Needs to be reapplied frequently
  • Thicker formulation
  • May leave a slight white cast

So, Which Sunscreen Is Better: Chemical Or Mineral?

The answer to this question depends on who you ask. Someone with very dark skin might have a tough time with mineral sunscreens because, although many formulations today are tinted or sheer, there’s still a slight chance of some formulas leaving a whitish cast on skin. On the other hand, chemical sunscreens can block your pores and cause breakouts or irritation, so people with sensitive or acne-prone skin are often better off with mineral sunscreens.

And then, of course, there are the health and environmental debates which are constantly ongoing. Studies still need to be made to clarify any negative issues caused by chemical sunscreens, but we care about our oceans, reefs and marine life just as much as we care about your skin and health, so just to be sure, we personally sit firmly in the mineral sunscreen camp. This is why (drumroll, please) we just launched our very own Mineral Sunscreen with Broad Spectrum SPF 30, which has been formulated with non-nano zinc oxide and comes jam-packed with other skin-loving ingredients like vitamin C and vegan marine collagen. 

To finish, the most important thing to remember is that whichever type of sunscreen you choose, make sure you apply it regularly and generously. The sun is responsible for between 80 and 90 percent of external skin aging, so protecting your skin and shielding it from those damaging UV rays should be one of the most important parts of your daily routine. And when we say daily we mean every day of the year. Not just spring, not just summer. Every day. No arguments.

 

About Georgia Gould
Georgia is an award-winning beauty writer who has been in the business for over 20 years. British-born, she began her career as a magazine beauty editor in London before moving to San Francisco, CA in 2012 where she now continues her love as a freelance writer and editor. As well as her editorial work, Georgia has created content for many high-profile beauty brands, including Clarins, L’Oréal, Procter & Gamble, Simple and TRESemmé. Her passions include retinol (obviously), golfing, skiing and walking her beloved Schnauzer, Dave.