Sunscreen 101: The Difference Between Mineral and Chemical Sunscreen

Sunscreen 101: The Difference Between Mineral and Chemical Sunscreen


5 minute read

What is the difference between mineral and chemical sunscreens and how does it impact my body?

We all know we should be wearing sunscreen by now. Wearing mineral or chemical sunscreen has a host of benefits from anti-aging, skin cancer prevention, and reduction in other skin health concerns. While there are a number of myths that exist around sunscreen, it's important to be able to distinguish what products are still safe for your body and the environment.

But the information around which sunscreens are safe for use has heated up since the article by MF Matta, which demonstrated that specific levels of oxybenzone, a type of chemical sunscreen, may not be considered safe. Rather than state whether your sunscreen is safe, or not for you, we are breaking down some of the key differences you should know when evaluating a mineral vs. chemical sunscreen and the impact it can have on your body. 

Chemical Sunscreens

Chemical sunscreens work like a sponge, absorbing the sun’s rays and releasing heat. Chemical sunscreens contain one or more of the following active ingredients: 

  • oxybenzone
  • avobenzone
  • octisalate
  • octocrylene
  • homosalate 
  • octinoxate.

Implications on the environment 

Studies have identified UV filters such as oxybenzone, octocrylene, octinoxate, and ethylhexyl salicylate in many water sources worldwide. Common wastewater treatment plants cannot easily remove these ingredients.

The study by MF Matta in particular assessed men and women who were exposed to repeated applications of chemical sunscreen lotion and then evaluated what its impacts were on the bloodstream. Currently, the FDA does not have enough data on chemical sunscreens products to determine if they can be Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS).

In addition, there is also a fair amount of controversy around the effects of sunscreen on the coral reef. In laboratory settings, e.g. not in the ocean, oxybenzone has been implicated as a possible contributor to coral stress.  Further research is ongoing to better define the impact of these chemicals in humans and in the environment. To date there is not definitive evidence that these indeed cause harm, but we look forward to reporting on new findings as they become available. 

Several states, such as Hawaii, have banned chemical sunscreens until further proof that these ingredients are not harmful to the coral reef. Common sunscreen ingredients such as oxybenzone, octocrylene, and octinoxate have been identified in various fish species worldwide and sunscreens are not the only sources of these chemicals.

The impacts of these findings have yet to be determined and the FDA requires further research of these ingredients to better assess their safety for both humans and the environment.

Impact from Chemical SPF On Our Bodies

While chemical sunscreens provide excellent sun protection, the ingredients are also absorbed into the bloodstream and is detected in the urine as well as noted above.

Much of the literature on chemical sunscreen active ingredients focuses on one specific chemical ingredient, oxybenzone. 

In addition to being used in sunscreen, oxybenzone is also present in plastic, hairspray, and nail polish. Unfortunately, there is currently not enough evidence from recent reports to make conclusive claims on the findings of absorption of these chemical ingredients.

For example, a recent systematic study could not find a causal relationship between the elevated level of oxybenzone and adverse health outcomes. 

A non-causal relationship does not mean that these products are safe. It simply means there is not enough information to make a conclusive recommendation.

Mineral sunscreen

Mineral-based sunscreens are physical blockers, meaning they are not absorbed into our bloodstream. Mineral sunscreen ingredients will have the following as the only active ingredients.

The two minerals above are approved as GRAS (Generally regarded as safe) by the FDA.  Of a thicker consistency, mineral sunscreens tend to sit on top of the skin, acting as a protecting layer rather than using chemicals that end up being soaked in.

You can think of them as an all-natural protein bar or smoothie that isn't as sweet as a candy bar but is effective in protecting the skin from damage.

Additionally, mineral sunscreens tend to be less harsh, which is certainly a priority for those with sensitive skin or issues with acne. Men, in particular, will want to look for ultralight products that are geared toward their skin.

Mineral sunscreens work by absorbing and reflecting ultraviolet rays, but unlike chemical sunscreen products, they are not overly absorbed into the skin.

Newer formulations use ultra-fine (150-400 nm) and nano particles (smaller than 100 nm) to ensure an appearance that is more similar to chemical. 

Traditionally, Zinc Oxide absorbs across both UVA and UVB spectrum while Titanium dioxide tends to be effective as a UVB blocker, in particular at smaller sizes.   While some mineral options can come in the form of aerosols, due to potential negative effects of the minerals when inhaled, powder and aerosolized spray products are discouraged.  

So, which sunscreen product is best for you?

As always, make sure to compliment your SPF with a full sun protection program that includes a sun hat, sunglasses, sun shirt & seeking shade. That's because sunscreen can only do so much. Again, if you followed a strict diet, but never exercised, you'd be missing out on key health benefits. 

Both chemical and mineral sunscreens can and will protect you from sun damage when used properly. The right sunscreen is the sunscreen you'll want to use. For your day-in, day-out option, look for a mineral-based solution.

A comprehensive routine will set you up for success.

Text DOC to +1 (844) 944 2952 and connect with one of our skin health experts with your questions.

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