Like many skincare products, sun protection can be confusing, and there’s a lot of opposing information out there about the various types of sunscreens and which one is best. Mineral? chemical? What does it all mean? There’s a lot of SPF lingo out there, and perhaps you’re wondering what the difference between mineral and chemical sunscreen is, anyway (and which is best for you). To find out just that, we turned to board-certified dermatologist Dr. Hadley King and esthetician Candace Marino.
Keep scrolling to learn the difference between physical vs. chemical sunscreens and find which one is right for you.
What Is Mineral Sunscreen?
Also commonly referred to as physical sunscreen, “Mineral sunscreen is a physical sunscreen consisting of active ingredients like zinc oxide or titanium dioxide,” says Marino. “They form a physical barrier that reflects the light rays away from the skin.” The American Academy of Dermatology recommends using a mineral sunscreen (instead of a chemical sunscreen) if you have sensitive or acne-prone skin.
When we think of mineral sunscreens, often the goopy zincs of your childhood come to mind, but modern formulas are much more enjoyable to wear, even if you have a deeper skin tone. “Physical sunscreens have come a long way from their chalky, white, hard-to-spread predecessors,” says King. “There are now many brands making physical sunscreens that are easy to apply and look great.” Marino is a big fan of the entire line of SkinBetter sunscreens, and the Byrdie editors love the SkinBetter Sheer SPF 70, specifically—it blends in completely and leaves a lovely, glowy finish. Still, even the more modern mineral formulations are still thicker than chemical sunscreens and may feel heavy to some people.
What Is Chemical Sunscreen?
“Chemical sunscreen is a category of SPF that uses active ingredients to absorb the sun rays, turn them into heat, and then release the heat through the skin,” says Marino. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, chemical sunscreens “contain one or more of the following ingredients: oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate, or octinoxate.” Chemical sunscreens tend to be lighter, more sheer (some are completely sheer), and generally more favored by consumers. But with that being said, chemical sunscreens have also faced some criticism over the years. For starters, Dr. King says the active ingredients in most chemical sunscreens can be fairly irritating if you have sensitive or acne-prone skin. Chemical sunscreens have also been shown to have some adverse environmental effects.1 And although there is more research to be done and this theory has yet to be accepted by the medical community, some studies published in 2017 do suggest concern over a potential link between chemical sunscreen use and endocrine disruption.2
Octocrylene is a chemical sunscreen ingredient that, once absorbed into the skin, captures UV rays before they can cause damage to the underlying skin cells. It can also help stabilize chemical sunscreen formulas.
Mineral Sunscreens vs. Chemical Sunscreens: The Key Difference
The key difference between mineral and chemical sunscreens is that mineral/physical sunscreens sit on top of the skin and block rays at the surface using ingredients like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, while chemical sunscreens absorb rays like a sponge using ingredients like oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate, or octinoxate. Mineral sunscreens tend to be better suited for those with sensitive or acne-prone skin, but the formulations also tend to be thicker (and can potentially leave a white cast behind on deeper skin tones). Chemical sunscreens are usually lighter, clearer, and more enjoyable to wear, but the active ingredients in chemical sunscreens may have adverse environmental effects. Chemical sunscreens can also be irritating for those with sensitive or acne-prone skin.
Is Mineral Sunscreen Better Than Chemical Sunscreen?
So, is mineral sunscreen better than chemical sunscreen? Given the potential environmental impact and a few chemical sunscreen recalls here and there, mineral sunscreens do tend to be more trusted across the board. But with that being said, both of the experts we’ve interviewed agree that the “best” sunscreen is the one you will actually wear.
“I am a fan of whichever sunscreen my client will use every single day,” says Marino. “It’s important for me as a provider to help my clients select a formula that works for their specific skin’s needs, and fits into their lifestyle. There are so many negative connotations with sunscreens because traditionally they were seen as only for use at the beach, etc… and many of the old formulas were sticky, smelly and thick. Nowadays sunscreens are so advanced, the formulas blend well, and can have secondary cosmetic benefits, like tinted sunscreens that will blur imperfections or ones that will hydrate or mattify the skin. Because sunscreens are so specific, there is truly a formula for everyone. For me personally, I use a combination of physical and chemical SPF every single day.”
However, both Marino and Dr. King note that you should take your skin type into consideration when choosing a sunscreen. “Two things can cause sunscreen-related breakouts: occlusion of the pores by comedogenic materials or a sensitivity reaction to chemical UV-blocking ingredients,” notes Dr. King. For this reason, she recommends physical sunscreens over chemical, and suggests looking for oil-free or non-comedogenic on the label.
Also, for some people with darker skin types, King notes that it can be difficult to find a physical sunscreen that doesn’t make skin appear pasty. “Chemical sunscreens will be easier in this regard, but there are physical sunscreens, particularly tinted ones, that shouldn’t have this issue either,” she notes.
Breakouts can come from any of the ingredients in the product, not only from the active sunscreen ingredients. If you have sensitive or acne-prone skin, do a patch test before applying the formula all over your face.
While chemical sunscreens may have adverse effects on the environment and have faced a few recalls over the years, nothing has been proven for certain. Ultimately, both of the experts we’ve interviewed agree that the best sunscreen is the one you will actually wear. So while mineral sunscreens may be more trusted across the board, it’s only “better” if you’ll actually wear it. Pay less attention to the mineral vs chemical debate and instead focus on finding a broad-spectrum sunscreen you love that’s SPF 30 or higher. And of course, if you have specific health concerns, always speak to your physician before trying a new sunscreen.