Mineral vs. Chemical Sunscreen: Which Is Better? (2024)

Getting ready for summer adventures means having your beach bag or backpack stocked and ready. Sun hat? Check! Water bottle? Check! Sunscreen? Of course! But wait — should you go for mineral or chemical sunscreen?

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Chances are, you’ve asked yourself this question while browsing the sunscreen aisle.

And while these two types of sunscreens achieve the same goal, they differ in their active ingredients and how they work to protect your skin from the sun’s harmful rays.

Dermatologist Taylor Bullock, MD, explains the main differences between mineral and chemical sunscreens and how to pick the right one for you.

Differences between mineral and chemical sunscreens

First things first. There’s no question that you should be applying some sort of sun protection (thoroughly!) when you’re out in the sun. Doing this helps you avoid nasty sunburns or sun poisoning and can reduce your risk of skin cancers like melanoma.

Mineral sunscreen and chemical sunscreen are the two main types of sunscreen you’ll see on the market — you can usually see which one is which by how they’re labeled on the front, as well as the listed ingredients on the back.

How do they work?

Here’s a breakdown of what’s in chemical and mineral sunscreens, and how well both work.

Mineral sunscreen

Also known as organic or physical sunscreen, mineral sunscreen is known for having a heavier, thicker texture than chemical sunscreens. “Mineral sunscreens are composed of minerals and protect the skin by reflecting ultraviolet light from the sun,” explains Dr. Bullock.

On the back of a mineral sunscreen bottle, you’ll find active ingredients like:

  • Zinc oxide.
  • Titanium dioxide.

Mineral sunscreen ingredients work as a shield against the sun’s rays. This is because the sunscreen actually sits on your skin's surface, reflecting and scattering the UV rays away from your skin. Mineral sunscreens are usually opaque (not see-through) when applied and start working immediately upon application.

Chemical sunscreen

Chemical sunscreen contains (you guessed it) chemical ingredients. But what does that actually mean? “Chemical sunscreens provide sun protection by absorbing the sun’s rays and preventing them from reaching the skin,” Dr. Bullock explains.

Chemical sunscreen contains chemical compounds like:

  • Avobenzone.
  • Oxybenzone.
  • Octinoxate.

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The chemical compounds in chemical sunscreen work as a sort of sponge to absorb the UV rays and then convert them into heat, which is released from your skin. This type of sunscreen is typically transparent (see-through) when applied and needs some time to be absorbed into your skin before becoming effective.

Pros and cons of mineral sunscreen

Pros

  • Good for sensitive skin. Mineral sunscreens are generally well-tolerated by people with sensitive skin or those prone to skin allergies. They are less likely to cause irritation or allergic reactions compared to chemical sunscreens. “Since mineral sunscreens do not contain chemicals, they’re preferred for use in children,” notes Dr. Bullock.
  • Good for acne-prone skin. Mineral sunscreens are less likely to clog pores and contribute to acne breakouts. They’re a good option for people with oily or acne-prone skin.
  • Immediate protection. Mineral sunscreens start working as soon as they’re applied to your skin. Unlike chemical sunscreen, you don’t have to wait for the sunscreen to be absorbed before going out in the sun.

Cons

  • Slower application. Mineral sunscreens often have a thicker, goopier texture compared to chemical sunscreens. This can make them feel heavier on your skin. “Mineral sunscreens can sometimes be harder to spread on the skin,” adds Dr. Bullock.
  • Leaves white cast on skin. One common drawback of mineral sunscreens is that they can leave a white cast on your skin. The zinc oxide or titanium dioxide particles can be visible, especially on darker skin tones. But some modern formulations are designed to minimize this effect.

Pros and cons of chemical sunscreen

Pros

  • Easy application. Because of its ingredients, chemical sunscreens can be applied easier to apply due to its more lightweight, blendable texture.
  • Transparent on skin. Unlike mineral sunscreens, chemical sunscreens are usually transparent on your skin, without leaving a white cast.
  • Water-resistant formulations. Chemical sunscreens often have better water resistance compared to mineral sunscreens. They can maintain their effectiveness for a longer period when exposed to water or sweat, making them a good option for outdoor activities and swimming.

Cons

  • May cause allergic reactions or irritation. Due to the ingredients used, chemical sunscreen has a higher risk of causing allergic reactions in some cases. “Chemical sunscreens can cause burning if it gets in the eyes,” warns Dr. Bullock.
  • Isn’t immediately effective. Chemical sunscreens typically need about 20 minutes to fully absorb and become effective after application. It’s important to apply them in advance before sun exposure to ensure proper protection.
  • Absorption into skin. Chemical sunscreens are designed to be absorbed into your skin to work effectively. There are some concerns about the absorption of certain chemical sunscreen ingredients into the bloodstream.

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Is mineral sunscreen better?

Overall, you may have heard that mineral sunscreen is the better option — but a big part of it comes down to preference.

“Both mineral and chemical sunscreens are advantageous in their own ways, but in the end, the best sunscreen for you is the sunscreen that you are willing to use,” emphasizes Dr. Bullock.

Mineral sunscreen has become a preferred choice in recent years after studies pointed out concerns over certain ingredients in chemical sunscreens such as oxybenzone and avobenzone.

According to a 2019 study, there was evidence that the active-ingredient chemicals in sunscreens may be absorbed into the bloodstream and cause side effects such as rashes.

Meanwhile, two of the main ingredients in mineral sunscreen were regarded as safe by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2019.

Certainly, either a mineral or chemical sunscreen can be better than no sunscreen at all! But if you’re wondering how certain ingredients may affect you, talk to a healthcare provider or dermatologist.

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Mineral vs. Chemical Sunscreen: Which Is Better? (2024)
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