What’s the Difference Between Mineral and Chemical Sunscreen? Here's Everything You Need to Know
Find out which one's right for you.
Beauty editors and dermatologists alike are always preaching the necessity of year-round SPF protection. I mean, how could we not? Not only is sunscreen essential for protection against developing melanoma, but it also prevents against accelerated photoaging from UV rays.
Most dermatologists recommend using a broad-spectrum formula with SPF 30+ on the daily, but many people are unsure of whether they should be going with a mineral or chemical sunscreen.
If you’ve been left wondering what the difference is between the two, your Google search ends here, because we've done all the work for you. Ahead, top dermatologists break down the difference between mineral and chemical formulas and also share their favorite SPF products to use.
What is a Chemical Sunscreen?
"A chemical sunscreen uses ingredients that work as UV filters to absorb UV light," says board-certified dermatologist Dr. Michelle Henry. "They use chemical filters that absorb into the skin and absorb UV rays to protect skin. They convert UV energy to heat which is released."
Active ingredients like avobenzone, octinoxate, and mexoryl help to absorb the sun’s rays and neutralizes them. Think of it like this: "Chemical sunscreens acts like a sponge while the physical sunscreens acts like a wall,” says New York City-based dermatologist Dr. Tabasum Mir.
Are Chemical Sunscreens the Right Option for Me?
Chemical sunscreens can generally be used on all skin types — unless you're more prone to sensitivity.
"Mineral sunscreens are better suited for sensitive skin types," Dr. Henry advises. "They reflect UV light instead of absorbing it, and releasing the energy as heat [which chemical sunscreens do] can cause inflammation and irritation."
What are the Pros of Using Chemical Sunscreen?
The most significant pro is that if they do work for your skin type, they can be easier to apply and often go on clear. Chemical sunscreens are available in many varieties, like aerosol sprays, lotions, and sticks. But it's important to remember to re-apply your sunscreen every two hours throughout the day if you are going to be outside.
What are Some of the Cons?
"Chemical sunscreens are not inert and they may get absorbed," Dr. Henry warns. "They also have properties such as endocrine disruption or contact allergies."
On top of that, these formulas require a little more patience, as they need to be applied 30 minutes prior to sun exposure to allow for absorption.
Dermatologist-Recommended Chemical Sunscreens
Dr. Mir's Pick:
La Roche Posay’s Anthelios
To shop: $30; dermstore.com
Dr. Henry's Picks:
CeraVe Ultra-Light Moisturizing Lotion SPF 30
To shop: $15; target.com
Supergoop! Unseen Sunscreen SPF 40
To shop: $34; sephora.com
VIDEO: When You Apply Sunscreen in Your Skincare Routine Actually Matters A Lot
What is a Mineral Sunscreen?
Mineral-based formulas provide instant protection upon application. "They usually contain ingredients like titanium dioxide or zinc oxide, which sit on the surface of the skin and bounce the sun’s rays off skin, reflecting light back into the environment,” says San Diego-based dermatologist Melanie Palm, M.D.
Are Mineral Sunscreens the Right Option for Me?
Yes! Especially because they work for everyone — even those with sensitivity.
"Mineral sunscreens are great for all skin types, but especially sensitive skin types and those prone to conditions like eczema, rosacea and melasma," Dr. Henry explains. "This is because heat can exacerbate these conditions, so mineral sunscreens form a protective barrier over skin to deflect UV rays, instead of a chemical that absorbs the rays."
What are the Pros of Using Mineral Sunscreens?
"Mineral sunscreens are free of chemicals, so they tend to be more gentle than chemical sunscreens, which can often cause irritation and flare-ups of skin conditions," says Dr. Henry.
It's also ideal for anyone who is prone to post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation. “[The formula is] less likely to cause inflammation that leads to melasma and pigmentation," says Dr. Palm.
Just remember to reapply every two hours if you're outside — whether you deal with dark spots or not.
What are Some of the Cons?
While mineral formulas tend to be anti-inflammatory and are less likely to irritate skin, they can often appear chalky and ashy once applied, especially against darker skin tones.
Dermatologist-Recommended Mineral Sunscreen
Dr. Henry's Picks:
CeraVe Face Sheer Tint Hydrating Sunscreen SPF 30
To shop: $16; ulta.com (currently sold out)