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

Wearing sun protection on the daily is a must for protecting your skin against sun damage, including skin cancers. There are hundreds of sunscreen products available to choose from, all with different SPF values and formulations like tinted sunscreen, moisturizers with SPF , or primers with SPF.

Some varieties even contain active ingredients for added beauty benefits. You also want to consider whether you want your sunscreen to be mattifying, hydrating, gentle for sensitive skin, or specifically for lighter or darker tones.

On top of these considerations, sunscreen comes in chemical and mineral formulas. So, with all of this in mind, which is the best sunscreen when choosing between mineral vs. chemical sunscreen? Let’s chat about the differences.

What Is Chemical Sunscreen?

Chemical sunscreens absorb into the skin’s surface, allowing UV rays to absorb as well. Then, a chemical reaction occurs to neutralize the UV radiation and release it back out. This complicated process doesn’t necessarily mean chemical sunscreen is better. In fact, many people prefer mineral sunscreen, since chemical sunscreen might need to be reapplied more frequently.

What Are the Main Ingredients in Chemical Sunscreen?

There are a variety of chemical filters you’ll find in sunscreen products, but common chemical sunscreen ingredients include octisalate, homosalate, octocrylene, avobenzone, oxybenzone, and octinoxate.

These ingredients are generally regarded as safe, and they work by absorbing into your skin and combatting UV rays once they hit your body. “Most chemical sunscreens last for three or four hours, but should be reapplied more frequently as needed,” notes Melinda Hany, Registered Nurse.

What Is Mineral Sunscreen?

Mineral sunscreen forms a barrier over the skin to stop UV rays from penetrating. Physical sunscreen is another name for this type of SPF because it provides a physical barrier between the skin and the sun’s radiation.

The downside is that some mineral sunscreens may leave a white cast on the skin. This is because the ingredients remain on the top of the epidermis rather than being absorbed. However, not all mineral SPF products show on the skin, and an easy fix is to use a tinted SPF that will hide any whiteness.

What Are the Main Ingredients in Mineral Sunscreen?

The main ingredients making up mineral sunscreen are zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. Zinc oxide is an inorganic compound that is known to help soothe irritations through its astringent and antimicrobial properties . It is beneficial for managing oil production. Since it’s also non-comedogenic (meaning it won’t clog pores), it’s safe for acne-prone skin.

Titanium dioxide is derived from a natural metal and is found in many beauty products. It’s considered to be safe for all skin types, including sensitive and acne-prone. It’s non-comedogenic and gentle, and doesn’t break down in the sun, which makes it an ideal protective ingredient.

These sunscreen ingredients are effective UV filters that block the skin from UV rays and bounce them back. They are broad-spectrum, which means they protect against both UVB and UVA rays.

Because the actives in mineral sunscreen sit on the skin and don’t enter the bloodstream, they’re safe for use.

Do Chemical and Mineral Sunscreens Work Differently?

Mineral sunscreen and chemical sunscreen are different in the way they counteract the sun’s rays. Mineral sunscreen acts like a reflection by sitting on the surface of the skin to bounce back UVA and UVB rays so they don’t enter the skin. Chemical sunscreen absorbs into the skin so when ultraviolet rays penetrate they are deactivated and released as heat .

Chemical sunscreens are water-resistant because they enter the skin, whereas mineral sunscreen is at risk of being rubbed off in the water more easily. You should always reapply any type of sunscreen if you’ve been swimming or sweating, but Hany notes that you may need to reapply mineral sunscreens more frequently.

If you aren’t sure whether your sunscreen is mineral or chemical, look at the ingredients.

Is Chemical or Mineral Sunscreen More Effective?

There are different factors that impact whether mineral or chemical sunscreen is more effective. Be aware of them to ensure you’re following sun safety.

Chemical sunscreens take time to absorb into the skin before they can properly prevent sun damage (generally about 20 minutes). Since many people apply sunscreen and leave the house, or reapply outside (like at the beach), this leaves potential windows of time where the sun can do harm. Chemical sunscreens also need to be reapplied every few hours.

On the other hand, mineral sunscreens are thicker and may be more difficult to spread. And since they sit on the surface of the skin, they are at risk of rubbing off when sweating or toweling off after swimming. Another factor to consider is that the ingredients in mineral sunscreens are reef-safe , unlike chemical sunscreens.

In sum, both are effective methods of protecting against UV light, but keep in mind that mineral sunscreen works immediately after being applied.

Can You Use Mineral and Chemical Sunscreens Together?

You might be wondering: since both sunscreen formulas have their benefits and downfalls, can you use them together for the best SPF coverage ? Layering your sunscreens may work in some cases, but it’s important to be mindful of the ingredients in both products to avoid any irritation or side effects.

Consider hybrid sunscreens, which combine mineral and chemical ingredients together. Their chemical ingredients absorb into the skin while their physical actives remain on the surface to reflect harmful UV rays.

Which Type of Sunscreen Works Best Under Makeup?

There are days when you’ll want to wear makeup over your SPF. Let’s consider the best way to layer your sunscreen and makeup products so your skin is prepped, and your makeup doesn’t pill.

The final step in the order of applying your skincare routine is SPF (no surprises there). Before sunscreen, you should use moisturizer to hydrate the skin and create a smooth base for makeup. Look for a moisturizer containing sunscreen to ready your skin for makeup and simplify your routine. MZ Skin’s Hydrate and Nourish Age Defence Retinol Day Moisturiser SPF 30 hydrates and protects as one final step.

To avoid worrying about layering your makeup over your sunscreen, you can opt for a tinted sunscreen like the Peter Thomas Roth Max Mineral Tinted Sunscreen Broad Spectrum SPF 45 for a protective base that provides skin-like coverage. Or consider a powder foundation with SPF like the Jane Iredale Powder-Me Dry Sunscreen SPF 30 .

Can mineral sunscreen be applied over makeup, or should it be used underneath? If you use the right product, sunscreen can also be the final step over your makeup. To finish getting ready, seal your skin with a protective primer with SPF, like the Soleil Toujour Clean Conscious Set and Protect Micro Mist SPF 30 or the Supergoop! (Re)Setting Refreshing Mist SPF 40 .

All skin tones can find an SPF that works for them — no white cast included.

The Bottom Line

There are reasons to choose between a mineral and a chemical sunscreen, such as your skin’s sensitivity level, whether you’re near a coral reef (chemical sunscreens can lead to coral bleaching), how quickly you want to go out into the sun, and if you’re pregnant. Now that you know the ins and outs of both chemical and mineral sunscreens, you can determine which best matches you.

Say goodbye to sunburns and hello to a gorgeous summer glow with tailored skincare products like SPF that work with your skin and your goals for it.

Sources:

Antibacterial Action and Target Mechanisms of Zinc Oxide Nanoparticles Against Bacterial Pathogens | Scientific Reports

Sunscreens and Photoprotection | National Library of Medicine

Your Guide to Reef Friendly Sunscreens | Surfrider Foundation

Imperfect protection | EWG