Chemical vs. mineral sunscreen: what’s more effective?
When it comes to your essential skincare products, sunscreen may be as coveted as high-end moisturizers—and for good reason, too. In addition to impacting our long term health, the sun can also degrade our skin’s smoothness and elasticity over time. Thus, sunscreen helps prevent sun damage from the harmful UV rays you're exposed to, no matter your skin type or skin tone.
In other words, sun care is self care and the benefits of sunscreen are plenty. The trick is understanding which sunscreen is right for you. So, let’s dive into one of the hottest debates on the suncare stage: chemical vs. mineral sunscreen?
What is mineral sunscreen?
Maybe one of the most desirable aspects of mineral sunscreen is in its membership in the clean beauty club. Mineral sunscreen—or physical sunscreen, as it’s also called—says “no thanks!” to synthetic ingredients and instead focuses on shielding your skin with two active ingredients:
Zinc oxide – Zinc oxide, an active skincare ingredient, operates as a mirror to the sun. It reflects the radiation from the sun away from your skin, protecting your skin from the damaging effects of UV radiation.
Titanium dioxide – Titanium dioxide filters UV rays to hinder absorption. Titanium oxide deflects harmful rays while also scattering and absorbing them. Paired with zinc oxide, it acts as a physical roadblock for UV radiation.
Pros of mineral sunscreen
Now that we know what mineral sunscreen is, let’s explore its myriad benefits:
Immediate absorption – Unlike chemical sunscreens, which require application 15 minutes prior to sun exposure, physical sunscreens are immediately effective. You can smear it on and be out the door in no time flat (sun hat in hand).
It’s safe and effective – Titanium dioxide and zinc dioxide are the only ingredients in sun protection the FDA presently deems safe and effective for use.
…and photostable – Meaning that mineral sun protection needn’t be applied every two hours. (Thank goodness.)
Optimal for sensitive skn –Those who are prone to skin concerns—from allergies to chemical ingredients to eczema—may find that mineral sunblock is less irritating for their skin type.Bonus tip: mineral sunblocks that include antioxidants such as Vitamin C and green tea also have anti-inflammatory properties.
Cons of mineral sunscreen
Before you make the switch to mineral, be sure to consider the potential drawbacks:
Appearance – One of the biggest complaints about mineral sunscreens? They tend to leave a chalky cast which, depending on the brand, can veer from barely noticeable to stage-makeup white. This can be especially problematic for people with darker skin tones. That said, numerous manufacturers are hard at work at making mineral sunblock more palatable for your skin and tinted mineral sunscreens positively abound.
Distribution and protection – Due to its texture, mineral sun protection may also be more of a challenge to evenly distribute across your skin. Without even distribution, you may not have as much protection.
May cause acne – To return to the physical vs. chemical sunscreen question: Mineral sun protection is thicker than its chemical counterpart. It also rests on your epidermis (the top layer of your skin) and can thus clog pores, possibly resulting in an acne flare-up.
May not be as water resistant as chemical sunscreen – If you spend plenty of time in the water—surfing, swimming, skinnydipping, you name it—remember that mineral sunblock rests on your skin’s top layer and, thus, may not be as resistant to its chemical cousin.
What is chemical sunscreen?
Chemical sunscreen is an effective measure against the solar system’s most famous (and perhaps most feared) star. It uses several ingredients, chiefly avobenzone, cinnamates, cinoxate, octinoxate, and oxybenzone.
These chemicals work as filters and blockers to provide protection against UVA and UVB radiation. Essentially, they absorb the sun’s UV rays into the skin. From there, the rays undergo a chemical reaction that ultimately transforms into heat and dissipates.
Pros of chemical sunscreen
What are the upsides of chemical sunscreen?
Longevity – Consumer tests that assess sunscreens for how long they shield the skin from sun damage indicate that chemical sunscreens may be more effective than mineral sunscreens.
Cosmetically appealing – Aesthetically speaking, this is where the battle between chemical vs. mineral sunscreen really goes down. Most chemical sunscreens are clear and thin, with greater fluidity than mineral sunscreen. Simply put, this means chemical sunscreen is transparent and simple to apply. Additionally, it can easily go underneath your makeup without any of the chalkiness of mineral sunblock.
Cons of chemical sunscreen
Just as there’s a silver lining to every cloud, there’s a shadow to every sunscreen:
May be unsafe for the environment – As noted, the only two ingredients in sun protection that have been approved by the FDA are titanium dioxide and mineral dioxide. Oxybenzone, one of the leading components in chemical sunscreens, has been linked to a tremendous amount of environmental harm, including coral bleaching and toxicity to ocean animals.
Might cause irritation – Because chemical sunscreen contains, well, chemicals, it’s been shown to irritate skin. Not only can it lead to rashes, but some sunscreens may be comedogenic—meaning, they’re apt to clog your pores. Chemical sunscreens may particularly affect those who are prone to rosacea while also, according to anecdotal evidence, potentially causing stinging to the eyes, especially when splish-splashing in the water.
Requires planning – Chemical sunscreens take time to absorb. You must apply it at least 15 minutes before you head out into the great outdoors.
Chemical vs. mineral sunscreen: which is better?
Given the advantages and disadvantages of both types of sunscreen, the winner in the competition between chemical vs. mineral sunscreen is…up to you!
Are you concerned that unwanted chemicals, such as oxybenzone, will be absorbed in your bloodstream–and may be found in everything from your breast milk and your blood to your urine? If we were you, we would opt for mineral sun protection. Do you have a history of melasma? Then mineral sunblock may be better off for you as well. Likewise if you fly by the seat of your pants, as, again, chemical sunscreen requires time to penetrate before you can safely be in the sun.
Or would you prefer a form of sun protection that’s far easier to disguise and apply, and is generally more comfortable on your skin? Chemical sunscreen may be your best bet to protect against harmful UV rays.
All in all, it comes down to personal preference. For some, counsel from a trusted dermatologist, who may guide you towards a hybrid product that cancels out the question of chemical vs. mineral sunscreen. What matters most is that you use sun protection, period, and on a daily basis. UV exposure may be inevitable, but being able to prevent any possible skin damage with one product is an easy task. But don’t forget, sunscreen always goes last on a skincare routine order for optimal protection.
Find radiance from within with The Pill Club
From hyaluronic cleansers to Vitamin C serums, The Pill Club has got you covered so that you can get your glow on. Our dedicated Dermatology Care Team will work closely with you to determine your skin’s unique needs and customize a routine that may result in the radiance you’re after.
We’ll also deliver your skin care essentials straight to your door so that you can return to some fun in the sun–with ample protection, of course.
At The Pill Club, our goal is to provide the most up-to-date, objective, and research-based information to help readers make informed decisions. Articles are written by experienced contributors; they are grounded in research and evidence-based practices. All information has been fact-checked and extensively reviewed by our team of experts to ensure content is accurate and on par with current industry standards. Articles contain trusted third-party sources that are either directly linked to in the text or listed at the bottom to take readers directly to the source.