The Important Difference Between Mineral and Chemical Sunscreen

Sunscreen Man Repeller

I’ll admit it: I’m afraid of the sun. Growing up in Australia, where I’ve woken up sunburned after merely dreaming about the sun, I’ve had enough run-ins with that big burnin’ star to justify a lifetime of hiding in the shade. This has led to an unabashed obsessed with sunscreen wherein I never leave the house without it and have even been known to slather it on my loved ones without their consent. I take pride in being a grown-ass adult who cares about sun protection.

So when Leandra recently asked the Man Repeller editorial team: “What’s the difference between mineral and chemical sunscreen? WHAT SHOULD I DO?” I immediately volunteered as tribute. I spoke to Ivy Lee, adjunct assistant clinical professor of dermatology at the University of Southern California, and Anisha Patel, MD and board-certified dermatologist, to find out everything there is to know about mineral sunscreen.

What the hell is a mineral sunscreen, anyway?

Mineral sunscreens protect your skin by physically blocking and reflecting UV light, which is why they’re also known as physical sunscreens. Chemical sunscreens, which are more common, work in a different way, absorbing UV light, then releasing it as heat after a chemical reaction has taken place. (Science!)

While chemical sunscreens take about 20 minutes to begin working, mineral sunscreens start protecting the skin as soon as they’re applied. They also only include two ingredients: ​zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. According to Lee, mineral products are less likely to irritate sensitive skin and have a longer shelf life than chemical formulas.

Are they actually non-toxic?

They are! “Mineral sunscreens are a wonderful non-toxic option,” says Lee. “They are chemically inert, don’t penetrate the skin, and aren’t absorbed systemically.” They’re also reef-safe, which means they won’t have any negative impact on marine ecology when worn swimming. If your summer plans include snorkelling, and you want that coral to keep shining bright, a mineral sunscreen is the way to go.

However, it is worth noting that even sunscreens that do contain chemicals aren’t inherently bad for you or your skin. So, if you’re happy with the product you use and aren’t swimming by a coral reef any time soon, it’s perfectly fine to choose either kind of sunscreen.

How do I decide which sunscreen is right for me?

According to Patel, the best sunscreen is one you’ll actually wear. “Chemical sunscreens usually have lighter formulas and blend into my skin better, so that’s what I use most days. But if I’m going to spend the day outdoors, I’ll use a mineral sunscreen,” she says.

When deciding between mineral or chemical it’s important to consider your skin type. Chemical sunscreens can irritate the skin, so if you’ve found your face burning after applying sunscreen, it might be wise to make the switch to mineral. The same goes for people who are acne- or eczema-prone — with less active ingredients, mineral sunscreen is less likely to freak out sensitive skin.

That said, mineral sunscreen formulas can be thick and chalky (think of a lifeguard’s zinc-covered nose), so aren’t always preferred by people with darker skin tones. If you’re worried about your skin getting the ghost treatment but still want to try a mineral sunscreen, look for a tinted product (like this super popular Drunk Elephant one) and always try before you buy when possible.

And if I want to go with mineral sunscreen, how do I pick one?

Before you do anything, check the ingredients. A true mineral sunscreen should only include ​zinc oxide, titanium dioxide, or a combination of both, says Lee. Your product should also be at least SPF30 and be broad spectrum, meaning it will protect you from both UVA and UVB rays. Once you’ve ticked off those keywords, go ahead and test the sunscreen for blendability and feel.

They say it’s important to face your fears and after writing this story, I think I’m finally ready to take on the sun — but only if I’m covered head to toe in sunscreen first.

Photo by Michael Ochs via Getty Images. 

Gyan Yankovich

Gyan Yankovich is the Managing Editor at Man Repeller.

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