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By now, you’ve likely heard skin care experts say sunscreen is essential in helping reduce the potential of sunburns, skin cancer and wrinkles. And as the return to normal continues and the weather warms up, you might be looking to incorporate sunblock into your daily routine to help protect yourself from the sun. Some dermatologists argue in favor of mineral sunscreen over chemical sunscreen — in January 2021, Hawaii actually became the first state to ban the sale of chemical sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate. But what is a chemical sunscreen? And why would a mineral sunscreen be better? To inform your choice of the best sunscreen this summer, we consulted board-certified dermatologists on the differences between the two, and got recommendations on what sunscreens are worth buying.
Regardless of what type of sunscreen you reach for, experts advised using a broad-spectrum sunblock to protect the skin from the sun’s Ultraviolet (UV) rays, of which there are two types you should consider. Exposure to both can be harmful in different ways.
- UVA rays might accelerate signs of aging
- UVB rays might result in sunburns and lead to skin cancer
Mineral sunscreen versus chemical sunscreen
The biggest difference between mineral and chemical sunscreens is how they protect you according to board-certified dermatologist Deborah Spey, MD, of Schweiger Dermatology Group, who highlighted that both types of SPF are proven to be “safe and effective in reducing short- and long-term sun damage and skin cancer.
- Mineral sunscreen, sometimes referred to as a physical blocker, contains either zinc oxide or titanium dioxide and sometimes both, which sit on top of the skin and help physically shield it from harmful UV rays, explained board-certified dermatologist Hadley King, MD.
- Chemical sunscreen typically contains a combination of as many as six chemicals — oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene and homosalate — and that’s how you can tell them apart from mineral sunscreens, according to King. Chemical sunscreens “absorb” UV rays like a sponge through a chemical reaction that transforms the UV rays into heat and the heat is “released from the skin.”
You may also come across mineral-based sunscreens — like the popular Blue Lizard Mineral-Based Face Sunscreen — which means it is not an actual mineral SPF because it contains both mineral and chemical active ingredients.
Mineral sunscreen benefits
While Spey and King both note that mineral sunscreens offer advantages over chemical sunscreens, King recommends mineral sunscreens (also known as physical sunscreens) “for everyone” since mineral sunscreens offer full-spectrum coverage and are “easy to apply and look great.” Unlike chemical sunscreens, mineral sunscreens “are naturally broad-spectrum,” meaning they offer protection from both UVA and UVB rays as a baseline, no matter which brand or variation you buy.
Spey said that mineral sunscreens are gentle enough for children and those with sensitive skin and offer “unquestionable safety and efficacy.” The same can’t be said for chemical sunscreen, which has been shown to partially absorb into skin: In its January 2020 study on the matter, however, the FDA noted that “absorption does not equal risk” and still recommends using broad-spectrum sunscreens (without specifying any difference between mineral and chemical SPFs) — paired with protective clothing, hats and sunglasses when exposed to the sun, of course.
Mineral sunscreens “offer immediate protection, there is no need to apply them in advance and wait for them to be absorbed,” said Spey. The nonprofit Skin Cancer Foundation typically recommends applying sunscreen 30 minutes before sun exposure (no matter the type of sunscreen) and reapplying approximately every two hours. Although mineral sunscreens “can definitely” rub, sweat and rinse off, they last longer in direct sunlight, meaning they require less frequent reapplication compared to chemical sunscreens, Spey explained.
Mineral sunscreen limitations
The MDs we consulted noted there are some things that a mineral sunscreen can’t do, as well as some inconveniences around using it.
Spey noted that spray mineral sunscreens tend to go on “a little sticky” but they typically “become invisible” after you rub them into the skin. Mineral sunscreen might feel heavy on the skin, too. King advised testing out mineral SPFs before fully applying to help ensure they don’t leave behind a whitecast on the skin.
Best mineral sunscreens
Shopping for mineral sunscreens is a relatively simple process — some bottles will directly say “mineral sunscreen” on the front so it’s easy to identify. Other times, you’ll need to read the label and look out for active ingredients like zinc oxide or titanium dioxide and sometimes both.
Mineral sunscreens are available in various formulas, ranging from lotion and sticks to sprays and brushes. Spey is a fan of spray mineral sunscreens from Sun Bum, BeautyCounter and Elta MD. Outside of classic sunscreen brands like Banana Boat and Neutrogena, a few other popular physical SPF brands include Cetaphil, Supergoop!, Drunk Elephant and Coola.
You can also buy mineral sunscreens wherever SPFs are sold, including Walmart, Target, Amazon and your local CVS and Walgreens. Beauty retailers like Sephora, Ulta and Dermstore and Select reader favorite department stores like Nordstrom and Macy’s sell mineral sunscreen, too.
Now that you better understand what to consider and where to shop for mineral sunscreens, we rounded up dermatologist-recommended sunblocks, plus other popular mineral sunscreens from our extensive skin care coverage. And since some physical sunblocks can leave behind a white cast, we also included a couple of mineral sunscreens made for those with darker skin tones in mind.
As one of the best sunscreens for darker skin tones, Unsun was recommended by King and ELLE’s digital beauty director, Chloe Hall. King noted the mineral SPF contains zinc oxide, titanium dioxide and iron oxides which won’t leave behind a white cast. The combination of shea butter and coconut, olive oil and safflower seed oils also helps hydrate the skin.
Spey described this “innovative” tinted mineral screen as “ultralight” and highlighted that it utilizes peptides and antioxidants to offer UV protection, minimize signs of aging (fine lines and wrinkles) and “repair existing UV-induced sun damage.”
ISDIN’s “easily portable” brush applicator dispenses “a silky fine powder” featuring zinc oxide, titanium dioxide, mica and iron oxides, which together offers protection from UV, blue light and infrared radiation, according to Spey. “Take it with you for thorough protection and easy reapplication, even over makeup.”
One of Spey’s “favorite” mineral sunscreens for “light, invisible protection” that won’t clog pores or aggravate acne is this “weightless, almost watery” SPF from SkinCeuticals. It boasts “antioxidant-rich” plankton, which Spey said can enhance skin’s natural defenses against the sun. SkinCeuticals also created a mineral SPF for the delicate eyelid area.
King noted this “nice, creamy” mineral sunscreen “dries sheer” and is oil-free, which is helpful for those with oily or acne-prone skin. Skinbetter Science claims you can also utilize this SPF as a makeup primer to wear under your foundation and concealer.
King pointed out that this mineral sunscreen employs zinc oxide and titanium dioxide and offers “lightweight consistency and coverage.” Revision Skincare claims the iron oxides found in this formula offer a “self‐adjusting, universal tint.”
Blue Lizard's cream sunscreen is free of fragrances and parabens, which is helpful for those with sensitive skin. The brand claims this water-resistant sunblock utilizes zinc oxide to offer broad-spectrum protection from the sun's rays. It received a 4.7-star average rating from nearly 4,080 reviews on Amazon.
According to King, this mineral sunscreen is rich in antioxidants and features niacinamide, a popular skin care ingredient that can help improve skin tone and texture. Another selling point for King is that this Colorscience sunscreen offers protection from infrared radiation, which can lead to hyperpigmentation. The brand also makes a stick version of Total Protection, which King noted is convenient for outdoor exercises and is “less likely to run into the eyes.”
King also recommended Ghost Democracy’s “oil-free and non-greasy” SPF because it does not leave behind a chalky residue. Beyond being formulated with zinc oxide, it also boasts artichoke leaf and turmeric extracts, both of which have antioxidant properties, according to King.
As one of the best sunscreens for acne-prone skin, King previously noted this SPF can be dusted on the face and body as a setting powder to help extend the wear of your makeup. It utilizes a combination of zinc oxide, titanium dioxide and antioxidants to offer sun protection and protect from free radicals.
Board-certified dermatologist Orit Markowitz, MD, previously name-checked this Naturopathica sunblock as one of the best sunscreens to wear indoors. She noted that it boasts a “smooth-but-thick effect” and “smells divine.” Additionally, it is made with antioxidant-rich green tea extract that offers an anti-aging effect.
CORRECTION (June 7, 2021, 12:25 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article mistakenly included a Blue Lizard mineral-based sunscreen, not a mineral-only sunscreen.