The sun is powerful. Its gravitational pull is what holds our entire solar system together. And as much as our lives depend on this mighty star, its rays can also do major damage to our skin. Sunscreen is one way to help mitigate that, but some chemicals in sunscreen have come under scrutiny recently. As a result, mineral sunscreen has become an increasingly trendy alternative. But is mineral sunscreen better than its chemical equivalent?
What’s the Difference Between Chemical and Mineral Sunscreen?
Chemical and mineral sunscreen protect your skin, but they act differently: one’s like a sponge, the other’s like a shield. “Chemical sunscreen soaks into the skin and absorbs UV light, while mineral or physical sunscreen sits on top of the skin and reflects or scatters UV light,” explains Dr. Emily Smith, MD, a dermatologist at University of Missouri Health Care.
They also use different active ingredients. Mineral sunscreens contain zinc oxide (ZnO) and/or titanium dioxide (TiO₂), while chemical sunscreens have a much longer list of potential active ingredients, like octinoxate, homosalate, oxybenzone, avobenzone, and octocrylene.
“Chemical sunscreens contain ingredients that sound chemical,” says Smith. (You might have also heard that Hawaii passed a bill banning the sale or distribution of sunscreens that contain oxybenzone and octinoxate effective in 2021 in response to environmental concerns surrounding coral reefs.)
So is mineral sunscreen better than chemical sunscreen? Here are some factors to consider.
Easier on skin and eyes: Mineral sunscreen
“Mineral sunscreens are gentle on the skin and they tend not to cause allergic reactions,” says Smith. “They also do not sting or burn the eyes the way chemical ones might.”
Likelier to deliver the stated SPF: Chemical sunscreen
Mineral sunscreen isn’t bad, but “it has some limitations,” explains Dr. Henry W. Lim, MD, a dermatologist at Henry Ford Medical Center. “It’s not as efficient as chemical sunscreen and it’s harder to get a high SPF.”
That’s supported by a series of tests conducted recently by Consumer Reports, which has yet to evaluate a mineral sunscreen that rates higher than “Good.”
Less messy: Chemical sunscreen
Mineral sunscreen can also be chalky and leave a white residue that makes you look a bit ghostly if you don’t rub it in thoroughly.
Not under review by the FDA for safety: Mineral sunscreen
Since the FDA first began regulating sunscreens in the 1970s, sunscreen has gone from a product used at the beach during the summer to something many of us wear daily in facial moisturizer or slather on while exercising outdoors. Which is a good thing since skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the U.S.
To catch up with this behavioral change, however, earlier this year the FDA requested more safety data from manufacturers on 12 agents commonly used in chemical sunscreen. Concerns have arisen over how much, if any, of these ingredients is absorbed by the body since a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Associationfound the active ingredients in four sunscreens were absorbed at levels exceeding the FDA limit.
By contrast, titanium dioxide and zinc oxide do not currently face this kind of regulatory scrutiny. They have been deemed “generally recognized as safe and effective” (GRASE) by the FDA.
What to Look for in a Mineral Sunscreen
When you’re shopping for any type of sunscreen, it’s important to choose a broad-spectrum product with SPF 30 or higher. For a quick crash course in sunscreen jargon: “broad spectrum” means it blocks both UVA rays (which cause wrinkles) and UVB rays (which cause burns). “SPF” is an acronym for sun protection factor, which is the measure of a sunscreen’s ability to block UVB rays.
Another factor to consider when shopping for mineral-based sunscreen is its zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide content. Both active ingredients provide UVA and UVB coverage, but ZnO provides better broad-spectrum coverage than TiO₂, according to Smith.
“When choosing a mineral sunscreen, I look for a concentration of zinc oxide that’s at least 10 percent, or ideally 15 to 20 percent, to ensure adequate protection,” says Smith. If you’re buying a spray, she also recommends opting for a non-aerosol one to avoid inhaling particles.
9 of the Best Mineral Sunscreens
The following sunscreens contain varying levels of zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide, and are the best reviewed online.
It dries with minimal residue, and features Dry-Touch technology for a greaseless finish. It’s also formulated without fragrances, parabens, or phthalates.
This simple mineral sunscreen tested highly with Consumer Reports, and contains only five ingredients — including 18.5 percent non-nano, uncoated mineral zinc oxide.
With 21.6 percent zinc oxide, this mineral sunscreen can be used on the face or body. It’s mild on skin and locks in moisture without stinging or irritation.
Formulated with 10 percent transparent zinc oxide and 5.5 percent titanium dioxide, this brand is a popular pick for dermatology offices and beauty editors.
This budget-friendly choice has 21.6 percent zinc oxide and is paraben free. It also won’t sting eyes.
This non-aerosol spray option contains 14.5 percent zinc oxide. It’s hydrating, water-resistant, and protects against UVA and UVB rays as well as blue light emitted from device screens.
Formulated with 21.6 percent zinc oxide, this gentle formula doesn’t have fragrances, parabens, phthalates, dyes, or irritants.
Made with 12 percent titanium dioxide, this mineral-based sunscreen scored highly with Consumer Reports for living up to its label.
The combination of 5 percent titanium dioxide and 10 percent zinc oxide was formulated for the harsh Australian sun, where the UV index can reach 17 (11 is considered extreme).