What's The Difference Between Mineral And Chemical Sunscreen?

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Browse around the drugstore and you’ll probably see an entire aisle dedicated to sunscreen—especially this time of year, as we spend more time safely basking in the sun. While there are many different formulations and protection strengths, sunscreens can be divided into two overarching categories: mineral sunscreen and chemical sunscreen. This describes the type of ingredient used to protect skin from the sun’s ultraviolet rays.

“Mineral sunscreens contain zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. They lay on top of the skin and act like a shield to deflect the sun’s rays,” says Elizabeth Gordon Spratt, M.D., a dermatologist with Henry Ford Health System. “They’re also called physical sunscreens because they provide a physical barrier between your skin and ultraviolet rays. Chemical sunscreens contain ingredients like avobenzone, oxybenzone, octisalate and octinoxate, and they absorb into your skin. As ultraviolet rays penetrate your skin, these chemicals act like a sponge and soak them up.”

Historically, mineral sunscreens had a thick, chalky texture, but today, they’re practically as lightweight and smooth as chemical sunscreens.

So Which Sunscreen Should I Choose?

Last year, the FDA published a study revealing that chemical filters can seep into the bloodstream after one day of use, and that levels of those chemicals are higher than the recommended amount. The implications of this study are not yet known—scientists aren’t yet sure whether these chemicals are harmful for the body—but Dr. Gordon Spratt recommends using mineral sunscreens while waiting for the verdict.

“I especially recommend mineral for children because their body surface area is larger compared to adults, so absorption could be higher,” she says. “This doesn’t necessarily mean chemical sunscreens are dangerous, it’s just that we don’t know yet.”

We do know that chemical sunscreens are harmful for ocean life—they can impair green algae growth and damage coral reef, mussels, sea urchins, fish and dolphins. Hawaii banned sunscreen containing oxybenzone and octinoxate, which goes into effect January 1, 2021. 

Still, They Protect Skin Equally Well

As long as it hasn’t expired (sunscreen usually has a shelf life of two to three years) and it’s applied correctly, both mineral and chemical will protect from skin cancer, sunburns, and sun-related hyperpigmentation and wrinkles, says Dr. Gordon Spratt. Chemical sunscreen needs time to absorb into the skin, so apply it 15 minutes before going out into the sun. (Mineral sunscreen can be applied immediately before going into the sun.) And make sure you’re using enough: two tablespoons for your whole body, and a quarter teaspoon if you’re just putting it on your face.

Dr. Gordon Spratt recommends using SPF 30, as it will block 97% of the sun’s rays, or SPF 50 if you have a personal or family history of skin cancer. Choose a water-resistant formula if you’ll be sweating or swimming. Reapply every two hours, or after every time you swim. And check the bottle to ensure it says broad spectrum, which means it will protect from both UVA and UVB rays.

A Dermatologist’s Recommendations

“My favorite sunscreen is EltaMD UV Physical Broad Spectrum SPF 41, which is a fantastic sunscreen for adults because it’s tinted, and tinted sunscreens also guard against damaging blue light from electronic screens,” says Dr. Gordon Spratt.

She also likes Raw Elements, a natural brand, Neutrogena Sheer Zinc Mineral Sunscreen Lotion, Aveeno Baby Continuous Protection, and La Roche-Posay Anthelios SPF 50 Mineral Sunscreen.

“It’s all about finding one that works best with your skin type,” says Dr. Gordon Spratt. “We often give out a variety of samples so you can test them and see which one you like best. The most important thing is finding one that you’ll wear every day.”


To find a doctor or dermatologist at Henry Ford, visit henryford.com or call 1-800-HENRYFORD (436-7936). If you’re in the Jackson area or south central Michigan, call 1-888-862-DOCS.

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Elizabeth Gordon Spratt, M.D., is a board-certified dermatologist who sees patients at Henry Ford Allegiance Dermatology in Jackson.

Categories: FeelWell