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Chemical vs. Mineral Sunscreen -- Which formulas are safest for your skin?

July 03, 2019

Chemical vs. Mineral Sunscreen -- Which formulas are safest for your skin?

Everyone knows how important it is to wear sunscreen, right? (Right?) And while “safe sunscreen” may seem like a given (isn’t safety the whole point of wearing sunscreen in the first place?), chemical sunscreens actually contain some of the most toxic ingredients in the beauty industry. Many ingredients can be harmful for you (the sunscreen wearer), but also harmful to the environment -- specifically, sea life and coral reef.

So how can you tell which sunscreens are safe? Here’s a closer look at the top options for sun protection and skin health.

Chemical vs. mineral sunscreen

A recent clinical trial found that some of the active ingredients in sunscreen are absorbed into the body and into the bloodstream (rather than sitting on the surface of the skin, as previously believed). More studies are needed to determine the safety of these active ingredients and their potential health effects.

In the meantime, here’s what you need to know about chemical vs. mineral sunscreens:

Chemical sunscreen: These formulas work by absorbing UV rays from the sun before they can damage the skin. They are generally easier to spray or rub into the skin and less likely to leave a white cast.

Mineral sunscreen: Also known as physical sunscreen, these formulas form a barrier on the surface of the skin that helps reflect UV rays away from the skin. Mineral sunscreens are generally thicker and take longer to absorb.  

Mineral formulas also tend to be more soothing than chemical sunscreens, which often contain skin irritants (irritated skin = quicker-aging skin).

Pro tip: the quickest way to determine whether a particular sunscreen formula is chemical or mineral is to apply a bit to your skin. Any product that rubs in instantly and invisibly is probably a chemical sunscreen, and it could be potentially harmful for you and for the environment, so check the ingredient list carefully!

What about SPF?

It’s not as important as you might think. High-SPF products only offer marginally better sunburn protection than lower SPF sunscreens. For instance, properly applied SPF 50 blocks 98% of UVB (burning) rays, while SPF 100 blocks 99%. (Currently, nothing blocks 100%.)

It’s worth noting that SPF ratings pertain only to UVB (burning) rays — not UVA (aging) rays — which means that high-SPF products are much more effective at preventing sunburns than other types of sun damage (like wrinkles and certain types of skin cancer).

Safe sunscreen summary

It’s no secret that prolonged exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet rays can lead to sunburns and increase the risk of skin cancer. That’s why the American Academy of Dermatology recommends that everyone older than 6 months wear a broad-spectrum, water-resistant sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30 every day.

Applying a safe sunscreen formula every day, even when it’s cloudy or you know you’ll be spending most of the day indoors, is the best way to avoid the marks of premature aging (fine lines, wrinkles, and sun spots) and protect against skin cancer.

Ingredient spotlight: Look for products that contain zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, the only FDA-approved mineral filters that provide strong sun protection with few health concerns and don’t degrade in the sunlight.