According to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States, and nearly 20 Americans die from melanoma — the most dangerous form of skin cancer — every day. The number one cause of melanoma is exposure to natural and artificial ultraviolet (UV) light, which is the same light you get from tanning beds and the sun’s rays.
So when you head outdoors, you want to make sure you’re covered — literally. While sunscreens can come in a variety of applications, such as lotion, sprays, gels, or solid blocks, there are two main types you can get: chemical and mineral.
While both types work to shield your skin from the sun, they do have differences that may be deal breakers for you and your family. Here’s what you need to know.
What Are Chemical and Mineral Sunscreens?
Mineral sunscreens are probably the easiest to understand in terms of how they work to protect you from the sun. These sunscreens use minerals, most often zinc oxide and/or titanium oxide, that sit on top of your skin and reflect or scatter UV rays away from your skin. The nature of these sunscreens is also why you may see them advertised as physical or natural sunscreens.
Chemical sunscreens, on the other hand, are a little bit more complex. Instead of sitting on top of your skin to shield you from the sun’s rays, chemical sunscreens contain ingredients that absorb into your skin to provide protection. They achieve this by allowing the UV rays to be absorbed into the skin, but then the chemicals create a chemical reaction, deactivating the UV light and converting it into heat which is then released from your body. Common ingredients in chemical sunscreens include avobenzone, oxybenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate, and octinoxate.
You can think of mineral sunscreen as a million tiny mirrors sitting on the surface of your skin, reflecting the sun’s harmful rays away, while chemical sunscreen is more like a sponge, absorbing the sun’s rays and then deactivating them so they cannot cause damage.
The Pros and Cons of Chemical and Mineral Sunscreens
One of the key advantages of mineral sunscreens is their immediate effectiveness upon application. Chemical sunscreens need time to absorb into your skin in order to be effective — typically around 20 minutes — while mineral sunscreens provide instant protection. They are particularly effective against UVB rays and offer good protection against UVA rays as well, just make sure the packaging says it’s broad spectrum.
Mineral sunscreens are also less likely to cause skin irritation or allergies, making them a suitable option for those with sensitive skin or acne-prone skin. Additionally, they are generally considered reef-friendly, as the active ingredients do not have the same harmful impact on coral reefs and marine life as some chemical sunscreens. This can be important if you are choosing to travel somewhere that requires the use of reef-safe sunscreens, such as Hawaii or the U.S. Virgin Islands.
However, mineral sunscreens have some limitations and potential downsides for some. Because of the composition of mineral sunscreens, they tend to have a thicker consistency and may leave a white cast on the skin, which can be a downside for anyone with darker skin tones. However, many formulas contain skin tone-colored tints to help counteract the white cast.
The texture can also make it harder to spread evenly, requiring more effort to apply. Moreover, mineral sunscreens may not be as effective in extremely hot or humid conditions, as they can be more prone to sweating off or rubbing off during physical activity. Look for options that state they are sweat and/or water-resistant.
One of the advantages of chemical sunscreens is their ability to provide broad-spectrum protection, which means they guard against a wide range of UV radiation. They also tend to have a lighter consistency and are easier to spread on the skin, making them more suitable for daily use. Additionally, since chemical sunscreens are absorbed into the skin, they can be a better option if you plan on spending a lot of time in water or sweating.
However, chemical sunscreens do have some potential drawbacks. Some individuals with sensitive skin may experience irritation or allergic reactions due to the chemical compounds present in these products. There has also been concern over certain chemicals in these sunscreens being absorbed into the bloodstream, and the impact it may have on your health.
A recent study by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) looked at seven sunscreen ingredients — avobenzone, oxybenzone, octocrylene, homosalate, octisalate and octinoxate — and concluded that absorption of these ingredients into the body supported the need for additional safety data. However, the study noted that the data do not conclude that there are any effects on a person’s health and more research would be needed before it that can be determined. Most importantly, the study authors stated that individuals should not discontinue sunscreen use over these concerns as the risk of developing skin cancer currently outweighs any potential danger associated with these chemicals.
Furthermore, some of the chemical ingredients, such as oxybenzone, have raised concerns regarding their impact on coral reefs and marine ecosystems when washed off during swimming or water activities.
Choosing the Right Sunscreen
Given the information above, choosing the right sunscreen for you and/or your family is an entirely personal decision based on your specific preferences.
The American Academy of Dermatology Association recommends that no matter what sunscreen you choose, it should at least offer broad-spectrum protection, have an SPF rating of 30 or higher and is ideally water-resistant.
“Truth be told, the best sunscreen for you is a sunscreen you’re going to actually want to wear over and over again, and that can look different for everyone,” says Natalia Palacio, M.D., an internist and physician on the medical staff at Texas Health Dallas and Texas Health Adult Care, a Texas Health Physicians Group practice. “There are many options out there and one of them will likely feel better on your skin than the others, so you just have to try until you find one you like.”
To help guide you a bit more, The Environmental Working Group releases an annual guide to sunscreen use, with lists of its recommended sunscreens, including options for kids, mineral and nonmineral varieties, and moisturizers and lip balms with SPF.
How to Apply Sunscreen
Did you know that most people only apply 25-50 percent of the recommended amount of sunscreen? Even if you find a sunscreen you like, you’re only protected to the full extent if you’re using the right amount.
To adequately cover your body, you should use about an ounce — or one shot glassful — of sunscreen. For your face and neck, about half a teaspoon should be enough, or two to three finger’s length of sunscreen.
Opt for lotions over stick or spray products, so you can ensure you’re getting an adequate, even layer of protection. And remember, you need to protect any skin the sun can reach, such as your ears, scalp, and neck.
Apply sunscreen to dry skin at least 15 minutes prior to heading outside and reapply every 90 minutes, or immediately after swimming or sweating. Reapplication is also important.
Unfortunately putting sunscreen on just once at the very beginning of your day doesn’t provide enough protection to last the entire day. While including sunscreen in your morning routine is definitely grounds for a big thumbs-up, you should also bring it along with you or keep it in a drawer at your desk because it’s recommended to reapply sunscreen around every hour to 80 minutes, especially if you have a desk by a window or spend a lot of time outside.
If you wear makeup, though, you don’t have to take all of your makeup off and start over every hour. Instead, look for a powder-based sunscreen in either translucent or a shade that matches your skin tone or a solid sunscreen that glides over makeup for touchups throughout the day.
Which sunscreen you choose is up to personal preference, and the best sunscreen is a sunscreen you’ll actually wear. Just remember to look for one that is broad-spectrum and at least 30 SPF.
While sunscreens are helpful tools to protect against sun damage and skin cancer, they are not the only ones. When possible, it can also be helpful to wear a hat, cover up with clothing, stay in the shade as much as possible, and avoid hours when the sun is at its peak (from 10 a.m to 4 p.m.)