Woman applying mineral sunscreen

Chemical vs. Mineral Sunscreen: What’s the Difference?

I have been blessed to work in the skincare industry for many years, and I love it!  With that, comes a lot of questions!  The one I field a lot is, “what is the difference between chemical and mineral sunscreens?” I am asked this by friends, family and professionals alike, so let’s get to it, shall we? 

How do Mineral and Chemical Sunscreens work? 

Simply put, mineral sunscreens work very differently from chemical sunscreens. Wait, what?! Hold on, stay with me! While both products work to protect you from the sun, each product takes a very different approach to how they protect your skin from harmful rays. 

Mineral Sunscreen

You might hear mineral sunscreens referred to as “physical sunscreen.” This is because mineral sunscreens sit on the skin to physically prevent UV rays from penetrating the skin. Most mineral sunscreens are formulated with Zinc Oxide and Titanium Dioxide which form a protective barrier on the surface of your skin to shield it from the sun’s damaging rays. These sunscreens block and reflect UV light away from your skin. As such, mineral or physical sunscreens are often referred to as sunblock.

Chemical Sunscreen

Whereas mineral sunscreens sit on the skin, chemical sunscreens work differently. Chemical sunscreens are formulated with chemical ingredients, such as oxybenzone, avonenzone, octinoxate (and others) that partially absorb into the skin after application. Once sunlight hits the skin, these active ingredients prevent UV damage through a chemical reaction in which UV light is actually converted to heat and then released back out. In other words, chemical sunscreens protect your skin by absorbing UV rays before they can cause damage to the skin.

Both mineral and chemical sunscreens can provide broad spectrum protection, so they protect your skin against both UVA and UVB rays.  

Chemical vs. Mineral Sunscreen: Which is better for me?

The best sunscreen is the one you use! Put another way, any sunscreen is safer than no sunscreen. However, most, myself included, agree mineral sunscreen is safer for people than chemical sunscreen. Some studies have shown that certain chemical sunscreen ingredients can be absorbed into the bloodstream. This has raised some concerns about possible toxic effects, including allergic skin reactions and hormone disruption. 

I must point out that not all mineral sunscreens are created equal!  Zinc oxide is the common ingredient in mineral sunscreens. Zinc particles sit on top of your skin and block harmful UV rays. I always look for mineral sunscreen products that are specifically “non-nano” zinc oxide products. The non-nano products will ensure a mineral sunscreen product with larger zinc oxide particles, which are less likely to penetrate your skin. Smaller, nano-sized particles are small enough to potentially penetrate your skin, which can be harmful.

Mineral vs. Chemical: Which sunscreen is safer for the environment?

This is a topic that I take very seriously. I am a huge animal lover, in the water and on land, and also love being in the water. There has been concern over chemical sunscreens and their impact on the environment.

A common ingredient used in chemical sunscreens is oxybenzone. Oxybenzone has been getting a lot of attention not only because of its potential risks to people, but also because of its impact on coral reefs. A review published in January 2019 in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology found that this common chemical sunscreen ingredient may be highly toxic to reefs and the marine life that rely on coral reefs for survival. For this reason, many popular tourist destinations such as Hawaii have banned the use of oxybenzone.

I am asked quite often if the Ultraceuticals has a sunscreen that is “reef safe”.  This is not a fad, nor a buzz word. This is a hot topic that we should all consider when swimming in our oceans. In addition, there is a lot of material out there that advises anyone who is pregnant to steer away from chemical sunscreens. If you are looking for a mineral sunscreen, try Ultraceuticals UV Protective Mineral Defense SPF 50+. This toxic-free, mineral sunscreen is a product that I can’t live without. It is light, sheer and provides the daily sun protection you need. Pair this with Ultraceuticals Protective Antioxidant Complex for glowing, radiant skin.

Author: Holly Zack

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