Mineral vs. Chemical Sunscreen: Which One Should You Use?

Dermatologists clarify all of the confusion.

Mineral Vs. Chemical Sunscreen
Photo: Getty Images/InStyle

In theory, sun protection is a no-brainer — everyone who has skin should be applying SPF every day. Unfortunately, though, sunscreen is one of the toughest skincare products to navigate. Not only is there confusion around when and how to wear it, but social media is also ripe with opposing information about the different types of sunscreen and which one is safest. Not to mention, it can take a ton of trial and error until you find a formula that jives well with your skin type, skin tone, and lifestyle.

So, mineral or chemical? That is the age-old question as far as sunscreen goes.

To help ease the confusion about what type of SPF filter you should use, we turned to two top dermatologists to break down the differences between mineral and chemical sunscreens, plus how to determine which one is right for you.

What Is Mineral Sunscreen?

Also referred to as physical sunscreen, mineral sunscreens consist of active ingredients zincoxideand/or titanium dioxide"These ingredients sit on top of the skinto scatter and deflect UV rays, physically blocking them from penetrating the skin," says Hadley King, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City.

It's worth noting that nano mineral particles can be absorbed into the bloodstream. "This just means their particle size has been broken down to a smaller molecular weight and thus can be absorbed through skin," says Adeline Kikam, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and founder of Brown Skin Derm. "The benefit of this is to minimize the white cast that is associated with mineral filters in their original molecular weight."

What Is Chemical Sunscreen?

"Chemical sunscreens are made up of chemicals that absorb UV rays and create a chemical reaction that changes the UV rays into heat and the heat is then released from the skin," Dr. King explains.

These SPFs contain one or more of the following active ingredients: oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate, or octinoxate. In recent years, chemical filters have come under fire for potential health and environmental risks. However, according to the American Academy of Dermatology, the FDA says that sunscreens with these ingredients are still safe for use, and current scientific evidence doesn't show that any sunscreen ingredients "are harmful to human health."

That being said, some chemical filters can be irritating compared to physical filters. "Some chemical filters, such as avobenzone, are associated with a higher prevalence of allergic and irritant contact dermatitis compared with physical sunscreen which are lessallergenic," says Dr. Kikam. "So it makes sense to avoid it if you find this sunscreen ingredient irritating."

Mineral vs. Chemical Sunscreens: The Difference

The major differentiation between the two sunscreens is that mineral/physical sunscreen filters sit on top of the skin and block rays at the surface, while chemical sunscreens absorb rays.

They also wear differently, too. Mineral sunscreens have a bad rep for being thick, goopy lotions that leave you looking like Casper The Friendly Ghost. And while formulations have evolved, darker skin tones still run into issues finding physical formulas that don't have a white or ashy cast.

On the other hand, chemical sunscreens tend to be lightweight and sheer, which can make these SPFs more appealing to darker skin tones. "Chemical sunscreens tend to have a sheerer finish with no white cast," Dr. Kikam shares. "This makes them suitable for patients of color who may not want the white cast from mineral sunscreens. The formulations tend to be more lightweight on skin."

While chemical sunscreens are often more lightweight than physical ones, they can be irritating and clog pores, which is why some people justify not wearing sunscreen because it causes breakouts.

Dr. Kikam says physical sunscreens may also be a better choice for those with skin conditions such as eczema, rosacea, or Lupus. "We [dermatologists] also prefer them for babies and pregnant women as they're not absorbed into the bloodstream," the dermatologist says. "If worried about systemic absorption of sunscreen ingredients then, mineral sunscreens are the way to go."

VIDEO: When You Apply Sunscreen in Your Skincare Routine Actually Matters A Lot

The Bottom Line:

Both dermatologists agree that the best sunscreen is the one you'll wear every day. When shopping for an SPF, consider your skin type, concerns, and lifestyle when choosing between mineral and chemical formulas.

"Both sunscreens are formulated to provide sun protection and are effective at such, but as you can see, they have their advantages and disadvantages," Dr. Kikam says. "There is no one best one, but both may or may not be suitable depending on your sun protection needs. It comes down to your personal preferences."

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