The Difference Between Chemical and Mineral Sunscreen

The summer is around the corner and even though, we all should be wearing SOPF the whole year around, it is in the summer months when we are truly worried about the harmful UV rays exposure.

Some sunscreen is better than none — but for certain skins, one type may beat the other.

Many of us love spending the day in the sun. Unfortunately, sunshine can wreak havoc on your skin in the form of burns, blisters, and even skin cancer.

According to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States, and nearly 20 Americans die from melanoma — the most dangerous form of skin cancer — every day. The number one cause of melanoma? Exposure to natural and artificial ultraviolet (UV) light; the same light you get from tanning beds and the sun’s rays.

Fortunately, you may be able to curb the negative effects of sun exposure by making sunscreen a regular part of your daily skin-care regimen. A study published in September 2018 in JAMA Dermatology reveals that regular sunscreen use in young adults is strongly associated with a reduced risk of melanoma. Similarly, a long-term study published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology suggested that regular sunscreen use prevented melanoma in adults.

That said, not all sunscreens are created equal. There are two main types — chemical and mineral — and each type has its pros and cons.

a woman applying sunscreen
Regular applications of sunscreen can help fend off early skin aging and skin cancer.BonninStudio/Stocksy

Here’s what you need to know.

How Do Chemical and Mineral Sunscreens Work?

Chemical and mineral sunscreens shield your skin from the harmful effects of the sun’s UV rays in very different ways.

“Mineral sunscreen [ingredients], zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, are small particles that sit on the skin’s surface and physically prevent UV rays from penetrating the skin,” says Jennifer L. MacGregor, MD, a board-certified dermatologist at Union Square Laser Dermatology in New York City. You can also apply mineral sunscreens on top of other skin-care products.

Chemical sunscreens, on the other hand, allow UV light into the skin. Once the light is absorbed into the skin, the chemicals in the sunscreen (the AAD lists oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate, and octinoxate) create a chemical reaction in which UV light is converted to heat, and the heat dissipates from the skin, says Lauren Ploch, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in Augusta, Georgia.

RELATED: 10 Sun-Care Products That Dermatologists Love

Chemical vs. Mineral Sunscreen: Is One Type Safer?

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which regulates sunscreen products, hasn’t labeled either type of sunscreen unsafe. But as of February 21, 2019, the FDA has proposed a rule to update regulatory requirements for sunscreen products sold in the United States.

As part of this proposed rule, the FDA has called for additional safety information on 12 active ingredients commonly found in chemical sunscreens: oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate, and octinoxate.

A small randomized clinical trial published in May 2019 in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) revealed that four of these sunscreen chemicals (avobenzone, oxybenzone, octocrylene, and ecamsule) are absorbed into the bloodstream at significantly greater levels than 0.5 nanograms per milliliter (ng/mL). That’s far above the amount at which the FDA requires topical medications to undergo safety studies to determine possible toxic effects.

These results were echoed in a follow-up study published January 2020 in JAMA Journal of the American Medical Association, though this research looked at six sunscreen chemicals (avobenzone, oxybenzone, octocrylene, homosalate, octisalate, and octinoxate).

Although study authors say these results support the need for more research, they also say their findings don’t indicate that sunscreen is unsafe. What’s more, the known health risks of sun exposure far outweigh the potential risk of absorbing sunscreen chemicals.

Still, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) recommends avoiding chemical sunscreens with oxybenzone because of concerns that this ingredient may disrupt hormones and cause allergic skin reactions. 

Dr. MacGregor also warns against using chemical sunscreens when swimming in the ocean. A review published in January 2019 in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology found that common chemical sunscreen ingredients such as oxybenzone may bleach and damage coral reefs. For this reason, some tourist destinations, including Hawaii, have banned oxybenzone, as the Center for Biological Diversity notes.

A study published in May 2021 in the journal Nature Scientific Reports found that methylene blue, a common laboratory dye and medication, shows promise as an alternative sunscreen ingredient that’s both effective for blocking UVA and UVB rays and safe for the environment.

Meanwhile, the ingredients in mineral sunscreens — zinc oxide and titanium oxide — have been generally recognized as safe and effective by the FDA.

RELATED: 6 Steps for Choosing a Safe and Clean Sunscreen

The Pros and Cons of Mineral and Chemical Sunscreens

The Pros of Chemical Sunscreen

Chemical sunscreens are quick and easy to apply, and unlike mineral sunscreens, they don’t leave a white film on the skin. What’s more, chemical sunscreens statistically perform better on consumer tests that look at how long they protect the skin from UV rays, Dr. Ploch says.

The Cons of Chemical Sunscreen

Chemical sunscreens may cause skin reactions in certain people. Ploch says chemical sunscreens can cause allergic reactions in people with sensitive skin, and worsen melasma and rosacea. According to the AAD, melasma is a common skin condition that results in brown patches on the face, forearms, and neck, while  rosacea results in red patches and small pimples on the cheeks, nose, and forehead.

RELATED: 14 Great Sunscreens for People of Color

The Pros of Mineral Sunscreen

The two most common ingredients in mineral sunscreens, titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, are the only sunscreen ingredients generally recognized as safe and effective by the FDA. “[Mineral sunscreens] are much safer for people who are concerned about long-term exposure to chemical ingredients,” Ploch says.

Mineral sunscreens are also ideal for children, people with sensitive skin, and people with melasma. “The heat dissipation of chemical sunscreens can exacerbate melasma,” Ploch explains.

And unlike chemical sunscreens, which typically take 20 to 30 minutes to absorb into the skin, mineral sunscreens offer immediate protection — no waiting needed. Mineral sunscreens can also be applied on top of makeup and other skin-care products.

The Cons of Mineral Sunscreen

Because mineral sunscreen is thick and sits on top of the skin, it may contribute to breakouts in people prone to acne. “Acne-prone or combination skin may benefit from a combination of both mineral and chemical ingredients,” Ploch says. Meanwhile, MacGregor recommends combination sunscreen products with anti-acne additives like niacinamide (EltaMD 46 UV Clear is one option).

Mineral sunscreens are also harder to apply, tend to leave a white film on the skin (thanks to the presence of titanium dioxide and zinc oxide), and need to be applied more frequently than chemical sunscreens, Ploch says. 

Still, mineral sunscreens have come a long way over the years, and there are options on the market that won’t leave a white cast on your skin. “Ask an expert and try a few to find one you like,” MacGregor says. She recommends EltaMDAlastin, and Isdin.

Bottom Line: Mineral Is Best, but Something Is Better Than Nothing

Between the two types, mineral sunscreens are generally the better, healthier option. “I tell my patients that mineral sunscreens are like a healthy, home-cooked meal, [while] chemical sunscreens are like the fast food of sunscreens.” Ploch says. Mineral sunscreens typically take longer to rub into your skin and need to be applied more frequently, but they may be safer for long-term use.

That said, some sunscreen is better than none. The FDA recommends using broad-spectrum sunscreen (these protect you from both types of UV rays: UVA and UVB) with SPF values of 15 or higher, making sure to apply at least every two hours.

RELATED: 6 Places You’re Missing When You Apply Sunscreen


EPILYNX SKINCARE TIPIt is important to remember that application of sunscreen the whole year around is a must. Even in the cloudy days, UV rays are present and van even be worse that in the sunny days since they keep coming back to you while bouncing off the clouds. Mineral sunscreen is for us the way to go especially if you have sensitive skin or acne prone skin. But don't avoid the sun, just remember to always put the sunscreen on. Sun is great for your skin/mental health and internal health!

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