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Sunscreen - Mineral vs Chemical

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Written by Christina Storto on 2018/06/24

During summer, the only question I ask myself that is more important than "Did I drink enough water?" is "Did I put on sunscreen?"

While we know sunscreen helps protect against suns rays and damage to your skin and health, you may be protecting your skin way less than you think by unknowingly choosing the wrong formula. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) recently found that 73 percent of sunscreen products didn't work very well, or contained concerning ingredients, including chemicals tied to hormone disruption and skin irritation. 

What we can take away from that shocking statistic is that hormone-disrupting sunscreen filters are still in widespread use, many manufacturers are selling formulas that don't actually meet the SPF claims on their labels whether it be active ingredient amounts that are too low and/or ingredients that break down and become inactive in the sunlight. 

The EWG researchers point out that even though most people focus on a high SPF, what they should really be looking at is the ingredients in the bottle. The brands least likely to have potentially harmful or irritating compounds typically fall into a category called mineral-based, or "natural," sunscreens. You can find more information on their website here.

Mineral Formula vs Chemical Formula

Sunscreen is a unique body care product, one that consumers are   directed to apply a thick coat over large areas of the body and reapply frequently. So it is safe to say that ingredients in sunscreen should not be irritating or cause skin irritations and allergies and should be able to withstand powerful UV radiation without losing effectiveness or breaking up into our skin allowing some chemicals to absorb. 
We need to be aware that people can potentially inhale ingredients in sunscreen sprays as well as ingest some ingredients that are applied to lips therefore, ingredients should not be harmful to our internal and external organs.                             

The main difference between traditional, chemical-based sunscreens and the mineral variety comes down to the type of active ingredients. Mineral-based creams use physical blockers—zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide—sit on top of the skin forming an actual barrier and reflect the UV rays like a mirror to protect exposed skin against the sun’s rays. Sunscreens with zinc start protecting you as soon as you put them on, are stable and have no evidence of them causing any hormone-disrupting effects.

The others use chemical blockers—typically a combination of oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate and/or octinoxate—which absorb UV radiation to dissipate it.

There are also two types of UV radiation: UVB, which is responsible for actual sunburns, and UVA rays, which penetrate deeper. Mineral-based, physical blockers protect against both. But since chemical blockers absorb the rays instead, this allows UVA to reach those deeper layers of your skin and do the damage.

The Problem with Chemical Blockers

The other biggest concern with chemical blockers is the idea that they disrupt hormone production. More research is being done to tell us how much chemical is absorbed in the skin but general studies on these chemicals are alarming for a product we are supposed to spread on every day in particular Oxybenzone and Octinoxate which has been linked skin allergies, hormone disruption and cell damage. 
Experts and dermatologists for example, Dr. Jessica Weiser insist that mineral-based sunscreens such as zinc are the only real way to prevent skin damage and premature aging especially if you have sensitive skin. Mineral active ingredients don’t break down as readily in the sun, offering greater protection for longer. 

Apart from the damage to your health and skin, some lawmakers have even gone as far as passing a bill that bans the sale and distribution of sunscreens containing those ingredients. In Hawaii the ban in in full affect as these chemicals are thought to be harmful to the ocean's coral reefs. Oxybenzone and Octinoxate can potentially increase coral's susceptibility to bleaching and up to 14,000 tons of sunscreen are reported ending up in the coral reefs every year. To understand more about what the coral reefs does for the ocean and its creatures and why it is important to keep them clean click here.


Nano vs Non-Nano

Zinc oxide is a powdered mineral. It’s what gives the white cast and thicker consistency to some sunblocks. One thing you might see on the labels of natural or zinc oxide sunscreen are “non nano”. According to the European Comittee of Consumer Safety, a nano particle is one that has been micronized and is so small it has been measured in nano meters.

Many natural sunscreens with high concentrations of zinc and titanium dioxide are very white and not cosmetically pleasing because they have been left at their natural size and have not been made smaller (i.e. non-nano). Some manufacturers have counteracted this by developing formulas with nano-particles, particles so small they help the white titanium dioxide look more transparent and less thick so you can apply it easier and without that white cast.

              Non Nano Sunscreen                          Micronized Nano sunscreen


 Furthermore, there is good evidence that little if any zinc or titanium particles penetrate the skin to reach living tissues which makes these ingredients a safer and more efficient ingredient in your sunscreen.

What to Look For

First, look at the active ingredients to determine whether it's a chemical or mineral sunscreen. Don't make assumptions on the packaging alone.

The most common chemical and physical filters below: 

Chemical Filters

  • 4-Aminobenzoic acid (PABA) 
  • Avobenzone 
  • Cinoxate 
  • Diethanolamine methoxycinnamate 
  • Dioxybenzone 
  • Drometrizole trisiloxane (Mexoryl XL) 
  • Ecamsule (Mexoryl SX) 
  • Ensulizole 
  • Enzacamene 
  • Homosalate 
  • Meradimate 
  • Octinoxate (non-encapsulated) 
  • Octisalate 
  • Octocrylene 
  • Oxybenzone 
  • Padimate O 
  • Sulisobenzone 
  • Triethanolamine salicylate

Physical Filters

  • Zinc oxide
  • Titanium dioxide 
  • Octinoxate (if encapsulated) 

Chemical filters work by penetrating into your bloodstream. They may prevent sunburns, yes, but have limited effectiveness against photo aging, the type of UV rays (UVA) that is responsible for sun spots and hyperpigmentation. Look for sunscreens with active ingredients zinc oxide and titanium dioxide because rather than absorbing into the body, these ingredients will remain on the surface of the skin.

Here is a chart to help you determine the amount of SPF pertaining to Zinc Oxide

Less Than 15% Zinc Oxide 15-20% Zinc Oxide More Than 20% Zinc Oxide

SPF 24 or less

SPF 24 to 32

At least SPF 32


If you have sensitive skin, look for bottles labeled for babies or kids (Yes you can use it too!) If you are active and worry about sweating the sunscreen off, choose formulas that have sport or sweat resistant on the bottle.

Many people with acne or blemishes are hesitant to use sunscreen for fear of aggravating their conditions. To avoid this issue, look for the word “non-comedogenic” on your mineral sunscreen which means that it won't clog your pores or Oil-Free.

Any sunscreen that contains the physical blocker zinc oxide or titanium dioxide will have you covered in both the health and skin department!



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