These days, there are so many different brands of sunscreen to choose from. They all say “SPF” on the packaging, so it’s easy to think of them all as the same. The first sunscreen (a chemical formula) came out in the 1930s and in the 1980s mineral-based formulas became very popular. Today, those are still the two categories of sunscreen—mineral and chemical—based on the nature of their active ingredients. They are two different approaches to sunscreen, sparking a lot of academic research and public health debate about which class of ingredients is the most effective and also the safest to use.
Although the debate continues today, one thing everyone can agree on is that both mineral and chemical sunscreen have been widely shown to decrease your risk for skin cancer (basal cell, squamous cell, and melanoma). When the sun’s rays reach your skin, the radiation actually damages your DNA, creating highly active oxygen molecules in the skin that can destroy cells. Over time, this can lead to basal cell carcinoma and cutaneous squamous cell carcinoma, the two most common types of Keratinocyte cancer. They represent about 95% of malignant skin tumors.
Studies have shown there is a worldwide increase of these types of skin cancers, making your decision to use sunscreen daily exceptionally important. To help you decide which type of sunscreen will work best for you and your skin, we’ve put together a guide for comparing mineral and chemical sunscreens.
Mineral Sunscreen vs. Chemical Sunscreen
- How does sunscreen work?
- What is the meaning of SPF in sunscreen?
- Are the chemicals in sunscreen dangerous?
- What’s the difference between mineral and chemical sunscreens?
- What are the benefits of mineral sunscreen?
- What are the benefits of chemical sunscreen?
How does sunscreen work?
Mineral sunscreen and chemical sunscreen work in two different ways.
Mineral sunscreens use minerals from the earth—most commonly zinc oxide or titanium dioxide—to create a physical barrier on top of your skin’s surface. These ingredients have reflective qualities that bounce sun rays off of your skin and back into the atmosphere, allowing you to avoid their dangerous radiation altogether.
You may be asking why all sunscreens aren’t mineral formulas. The main drawback of mineral sunscreens is that as the sun protection factor (SPF) increases, generally the thickness of the mineral sunscreen formula must also increase. In some cases this makes the formula more challenging to apply and leaves a visible white or shaded residue on the skin that some sunscreen wearers don’t like.
Chemical sunscreens work a bit differently. They are absorbed into the skin and diffuse the sun’s rays into heat before they can damage your skin. This is why your skin may actually feel warmer while wearing chemical-based sunscreens versus a mineral formula. Chemical sunscreens usually use one or more of the following active ingredients: Avobenzone, Octisalate, Octocrylene, Homosalate, Oxybenzone, and Octinoxate.
The primary benefit of chemical sunscreens over mineral sunscreens is that they can be developed to have high levels of sun protection factor (SPF) while absorbing into the skin quickly and completely. They don’t leave a white or shaded cast to the skin, which can be an issue for those with darker skin in particular.
We put together this table to help you easily compare:
What is the meaning of SPF in sunscreen?
As we compare mineral and chemical sunscreens, we've referenced their differences as SPF increases. But what is SPF, really, and why is it important?
SPF stands for Sun Protection Factor. Many mistakenly think a product’s SPF number speaks to how effective it is. But the number actually tells you how often you need to apply a given product. The lower the number, the more often you have to reapply.
The chart below shows the level of SPF you should be using based on your skin type and the number of hours you plan on spending in the sun.
Are the chemicals in sunscreen dangerous?
It’s clear that regular sunscreen use can help prevent skin cancer. But in recent years, researchers have discovered that some chemical sunscreen ingredients can be absorbed into the bloodstream in higher concentrations than previously thought. This has resulted in calls for additional research on these specific ingredients as well as a much longer list of commonly used sunscreen ingredients. Much of this research is still underway. Relatedly, the FDA has called for research to understand the effects of chemical sunscreen ingredients on the body and whether the levels found in the bloodstream could lead to neurotoxicity.
Below, we’ve listed the status of sunscreen ingredients according to the FDA. Some have been researched more than others. The two ingredients considered “generally recognized as safe and effective” (GRASE) are mineral-based ingredients. Those listed as potentially dangerous aren’t legally available in the US. The rest are in the process of being researched but are currently deemed safe for use by the FDA.
Sunscreen Ingredient Status, per the FDA:
"Generally recognized as safe and effective," i.e. GRASE
Potentially Dangerous Sunscreen Ingredients
Aminobenzoic acid, aka PABA
Sunscreen Ingredients Under Research (Currently Deemed Safe by FDA)
Oars + Alps has chosen the ingredients in our mineral, chemical and mineral-chemical hybrid sunscreens based on the most recent data available about safety levels. Our product development team also worked to ensure all of our formulas are compliant with Hawaii’s health and safety standards for humans and marine ecology, which are among the strictest in the world. For instance, you won’t find Oxybenzone in any Oars + Alps products due to research potentially linking it to disruption of the endocrine system, as well as Hawaii’s ban on this particular ingredient. We also refrain from using Octinoxate, as this ingredient along with Oxybenzone are the two ingredients that have undergone significant research in regard to concerns for coral reef health. We closely follow ongoing ingredient research and will always make adjustments to our formulas to meet or exceed guidelines and regulations for human and environmental health.
Which Type of Sunscreen Should I Use?
Whether you use mineral or chemical sunscreen, or a hybrid of the two, is going to depend on your skin and your personal preferences. When used daily, both mineral and chemical sunscreens have been shown to protect your skin from DNA damage and the subsequent immune responses like swelling and inflammation that your body rolls out to counteract and prevent further damage to the body. It's important to wear sunscreen at every age, not only to prevent cancer, but also prematures signs of aging like wrinkles and sun spots.
We formulated our SPF line with options that are easy, convenient and, above all else, safe to use every day to increase your protection against the sun’s harmful radiation. Discover a cleaner way to use SPF here.
What Is the Difference Between Mineral and Chemical Sunscreen?
The main difference between mineral and chemical sunscreens is how they protect you from the sun’s rays. Mineral sunscreens use fine, granular ingredients that create a reflective layer of protection on your skin from the moment you put it on. The sun’s rays bounce off of that barrier without damaging—or even touching—your skin.
Chemical sunscreens, on the other hand, allow UV light from the sun to permeate your skin. When this happens, the sunscreen’s active ingredient (typically Avobenzone, Oxybenzone, Octisalate, Octocrylene, Homosalate, or Octinoxate) will react with the light, diffuse its radiation, and turn it into heat that is then dissipated from the skin. Chemical sunscreens take about 15–30 minutes to absorb into your skin and become effective.
Although no SPF can block all UV rays, both mineral and chemical sunscreens have been shown to be effective in blocking the sun’s harmful UVA and UVB rays. And according to the American Academy of Dermatology, regardless of whether you’re using chemical or mineral sunscreen, as long as you’re using one of them regularly and the SPF is 30 or higher, you’re being protected from 97 percent of the UV radiation.
Benefits of Mineral Sunscreens
There are many benefits to using mineral sunscreen to protect your skin from the sun. The most common ingredients in mineral sunscreen are Zinc Oxide or Titanium Dioxide, which are clean ingredients that reflect the sun’s rays without absorbing into the skin. They’ve both been labeled by the FDA as Generally Regarded as Safe for Use (GRASE). Because they reflect sunlight, all mineral sunscreens are broad spectrum, meaning they protect from both UVA and UVB radiation—something not all chemical sunscreens can claim. They also work the second you put them on, unlike other ingredients that need time to absorb into the skin.
Because mineral formulas create physical barriers between your skin and the sun without relying on a chemical reaction, they also tend to last longer in direct UV light compared to some chemical ingredients. It’s a great option if you often forget to reapply your sunscreen after a few hours in the sun. Mineral sunscreens also won’t absorb into your skin—and therefore your bloodstream—which is a big advantage over certain chemical sunscreen ingredients. If you’re at all concerned about chemical sunscreen absorption, a mineral formula will put your mind at ease.
Benefits of Chemical Sunscreens
Chemical sunscreens come with their own advantages. They are typically lightweight and often unnoticeable after application. They’re especially handy when applied in a spray, which makes daily use easier to achieve for those who don’t like to rub in their sunscreen. Chemical formulas also don’t leave behind the white cast that mineral formulas do, although they do need some time to absorb first before they become effective. And because chemical sunscreen absorbs into the skin rather than sitting on top of it, they generally work well with all skin types and tones. Chemical sunscreens also tend to be more resistant to water and sweat, so consider your destination before choosing the formula that’s right for you.
As any dermatologist will tell you, any kind of FDA-approved sunscreen is better than no sunscreen, but if you still aren’t sure which one is right for you, it’s time for a test run. Try our chemical sunscreen as a spray, our mineral sunscreen face moisturizer, and our hybrid face moisturizer that uses both chemical and mineral sunscreen to give you the best of both worlds. Here’s to enjoying your time in the sun safely.
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