Chemical vs. Mineral: Either Way, You Need to Lather on the Sunscreen 

Healthy Living

August 16, 2019

Sunscreen comes in two main types: chemical and mineral. Both varieties are responsible for the ever-important task of protecting your skin from the sun’s harmful UV rays, but they go about it in different ways. Understanding the differences between the two can help you determine which kind will work better for your skin and which you’d rather use. There’s still plenty of summer left, so check out these facts about sunscreen as you lather up for outdoor fun.

Chemical Sunscreen

When shopping at your local drugstore, you’ll probably have plenty of chemical sunscreen options to choose from. Whether they come in lotion, spray, roll-on or stick forms, these products all work in much the same way. First, your skin absorbs the product. Then, one or more organic chemicals in the formula get to work. They absorb the UV rays that hit your skin and convert them to heat energy that your skin can harmlessly dissipate.

Because chemical sunscreen soaks into your skin, you have to give it some time to start working. You should apply it about 30 minutes before you plan to go out in the sun.

There’s another thing to think about when it comes to the fact that chemical sunscreen absorbs into your skin: You’re putting chemicals in your body. Is that safe? Experts have debated the issue quite a bit, largely landing (for now) on the fact that any sunscreen is better than no sunscreen. But the FDA is currently investigating the safety of many of the chemicals used in popular sunscreen formulations, so stay tuned for that decision.

Mineral Sunscreen

Unlike chemical sunscreen, mineral sunscreen doesn’t absorb into your skin, nor does it absorb the rays of the sun. Instead, it sits on top of your skin. There, mineral ingredients like titanium dioxide or zinc oxide form a reflective barrier. For this reason, mineral sunscreen is also known as physical sunscreen or sunblock.

Mineral sunscreen often comes in cream formulations that are thicker than their chemical counterparts. But you can find sticks and powders as well. Because of the thicker nature of many types of mineral sunscreen, it can take a bit longer to apply these products, especially if you don’t want to end up with white streaks on your skin.

Unlike chemical sunscreen, physical sunscreen starts working right away. As soon as you put it on, it forms a barrier between your skin and the sun’s rays. The downside is that you may have to apply it more frequently since it loses its effectiveness as your skin gets wet from sweat or water.

Because mineral products aren’t designed for absorption, there are fewer concerns its safety than there are with chemical sunscreen. Physical sunblock is often preferred among those who value natural skincare products.

Different Sunscreens for Different People

By now, you might be feeling overwhelmed by the idea of making a decision between chemical and physical sunscreens. Each type definitely has its own pros and cons. To help you make a decision between the two varieties, keep in mind your skin type and how you plan to spend your time outdoors.

Skin Type Considerations

Those with sensitive or breakout-prone skin often do better with mineral sunscreen. Since it doesn’t convert UV rays into heat, it’s less likely to aggravate skin conditions like rosacea. Plus, it won’t clog pores. Older people with brown spots may want to opt for mineral products as well since chemical products can make dark patches worse.

Chemical sensitivity is another great reason to pick mineral sunblock. For example, if you’re pregnant, it may be a good idea to err on the side of caution by avoiding chemical sunscreen. Consider using mineral sunblock on young children as well – though do ask your pediatrician for specific advice.

Physical sunblock may not be the best choice for everyone, though. These products can sometimes leave white marks or streaks on the skin, especially if they’re applied hastily. Streaky sunscreen really stands out on deep skin tones, so if you have a darker skin color, you might want to go for chemical sunscreen instead.

Mineral products will also be more obvious on top of dry skin. Fortunately, applying moisturizer first often resolves that issue.

Time in the Sun

For a trip to the swimming pool, you may do better with chemical sunscreen. Since it absorbs into the skin, it’s less likely to wash away than a layer of mineral sunblock. The same goes for times when you know you’re going to be dripping with sweat, such as when you’re running a 5K or hiking through the woods.

But if you’re just going to be hanging out in the sun, such as sunbathing or chilling at a family cookout, mineral sunscreen would be a good choice. In direct-sunlight situations, mineral sunscreen may actually be the longer-lasting variety. It’s the one to slather on if you’re planning to relax on the beach without splashing in the waves.

Another thing to keep in mind: You should use mineral sunscreen when you’ll be spending time in fragile ecosystems, such as on a snorkeling trip. Chemical products can damage sensitive coral reefs.

You may find that it’s best to stock your cabinet with both types of sunscreen. You can use your favorite most of the time but switch to the other variety when it will work better for your day’s plans.

Sunscreen Essentials

No matter which type of sunscreen you choose, it’s important that you use it properly. Here’s what you need to know.

  • When: Ideally, you should wear sunscreen every day. Even if you don’t plan to spend much time outdoors, UV rays can travel through the windows of your home, office or car. Apply more sunscreen before spending half an hour or more outdoors, even on cloudy days. If you’re using chemical sunscreen, put it on about half an hour before stepping outside. Reapply sunscreen at least once every two hours. If you’re swimming or sweaty, apply it more frequently.
  • What: Not sure about SPF? The sun protection factor (SPF) rating is the measure of a product’s effectiveness when it comes to blocking rays. Most experts recommend using products with an SPF of at least 30. You can go higher than 50, but it’s not really necessary beyond that. Be sure to use a broad-spectrum product. Mineral sunscreens naturally guard against both UVA and UVB rays. Chemical formulations require a mix of chemicals in order to offer this broad-spectrum coverage.
  • How: All exposed skin should be covered in sunscreen. That includes your ears, your hands and the tops of your feet. Special roll-on products exist for sensitive areas, like your face, but make sure they meet the protection guidelines above. And be generous with your application. You need about a shot glass’s worth of sunscreen to be adequately covered. For chemical sunscreens, opt for non-spray varieties when possible. It’s harder to get even coverage with sprays, and some experts believe that inhaling them is dangerous. With mineral sunscreens, your best bet is usually to pat the product onto your skin rather than trying to rub it in. This can help to avoid the streaking problem.

Until the FDA comes back with more information on the safety of today’s chemical sunscreens, mineral varieties are a better choice, but that doesn’t mean that you need to avoid the chemical ones entirely. The best way to protect your skin against UV rays and damage is to cover up. When that’s not an option, the most important thing is to thoroughly apply some type of sunscreen and reapply it regularly when out in the sun.