Difference Between Chemical and Mineral Sunscreen | WELL Aging Sun Care

Difference Between Chemical and Mineral Sunscreen

(Why You Should Care and Why It Matters)

Chances are if you’re reading this, you’re well aware of the effects of the sun on our bodies. While we all need a dose of good old Vitamin D, we don’t need everything that goes along with it. Like UV rays. That’s where protection from the sun in the form of sunscreen comes in. 

As we all know, people come in many variations, as does our skin. Some are smooth and fair while others are ruddy and rough, and there are more options than just these. So why shouldn’t there be options for skin care as far as sunscreens go?

Well, actually there are. The main difference comes down to two very different types of sunscreen- chemical or mineral. And while they are both geared for the same purpose, many folks wonder if they accomplish the goal or if they fall short.

Are they effective AND safe?

In the midst of our volley to reduce our footprint and save the earth for generations to come, the term ‘chemical’ sunscreen leads us to believe that these products may be harmful to the environment. And if we’re slathering them all over our bodies as well as our kids, shouldn’t we know what we’re actually using? Are we really helping ourselves and the environment, or are we doing more harm than good?

The Power of UV Rays

There are three different types of UV rays that can affect us, all in potentially hazardous ways.

UVA rays pose an enormous risk for skin cancer as well as sunspots and wrinkling which are attributed to premature aging. Exposure to UVA can lead to severe skin damage, as deeply as the second layer of skin. It’s also responsible for as much as 95 percent of the radiation that reaches the surface of the earth. These destructive rays can penetrate glass and clouds, resulting in unexpected consequences.

UVB rays can cause damage to the skin’s DNA and like UVA rays, it can lead to skin cancer. Exposure to this type of UV ray can cause harm to the top layers of skin, causing burns with minimal unprotected exposure of just 15 minutes. UVB rays are the most common cause of reddening of the skin and sunburn.

UVC rays, while not normally considered a concern for skin cancer, are the shortest and most hazardous form of UV radiation. These rays can be encountered from contact with welding torches and mercury lamps as well as older style tanning beds.

Who Needs It?

Pretty much anyone who goes outside will benefit from using sunscreen. From those who are employed in outdoor occupations to those who enjoy leisure time outings, you can expect to be affected by the hazard of the sun’s rays.

Even on cloudy days, we need the protection of a sun blocker since these powerful rays are able penetrate through clouds. Also, anyone riding in a vehicle should consider using protection, at least on the window side of the vehicle since UVA rays can even pass through glass.

Small children also need the protection of sun block. With their ability to play for hours on end, they are not able to monitor their time in the sun. Reapplication every two hours, even for adults, is recommended, unless sweating or playing in the water. Parents need to be alert to the needs of their little ones. By setting a timer, it’s easy to remember when to reapply.

What Are We Putting on or In Our Bodies?

As mentioned, there are two main types of sunscreen, chemical and mineral.

Chemical sunscreens are absorbed into the skin, where it absorbs UV rays and converts them into heat. They are then released from the body. Mineral sun blocker, also known as physical sunscreen, sits on top of the skin layers and is designed to reflect the sun’s UV rays.
While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulates these to ensure that the ingredients meet both their safety and effectiveness standards, as of 2019 there were a whopping 750 options available in either beach or sport varieties. This number was what made the final cut after the FDA reviewed over 1300 varieties.

Chemical Sunscreens

Chemical sunscreens often include one of the following:

  • Aminobenzoic acid (PABA)
  • Avobenzone
  • Cinoxate
  • Dioxybenzone
  • Ensulizole
  • Homosalate
  • Meradimate
  • Octinoxate
  • Octisalate
  • Octocrylene
  • Oxybenzone
  • Padimate O
  • Sulisobenzone
  • Trolamine Salicylate

Of these 14 ingredients, the FDA states that they need additional information on 12 of them to determine the safety and effectiveness. That number equates to roughly two-thirds of the 750 variations available on the market today. Aminobenzoic acid (PABA) and trolamine salicylate are considered to be ineffective and unsafe as ingredients for sunscreens.

Due to the fact that these ingredients are actually absorbed through the skin and into our bloodstream, they raise red flags, particularly when used on children. They can be absorbed quickly, and with reapplications every two hours, they continue to increase the levels of these chemicals in the bloodstream.

If you regularly spend time in the sun, you might apply it several times a day for several days at a time, especially for vacation goers and those who work outside. These levels can become high enough to cause concern about potentially toxic doses.

The FDA’s research shows particular concern about the chemical oxybenzone. Studies show that this ingredient could potentially disrupt the hormone patterns in humans. According to Dr. Kanade Shinkai, "These molecules are chemical rings, essentially, and they absorb light. Chemical rings are also the fundamental basis for a lot of hormones, and chemical rings tend to enter cells."

"There is definitely reason for concern, because if you think about it, any medication you buy over the counter, you would expect that everything in there has been tested, it's safe, it's effective. This has never been proven for sunscreen." said Shinkai, who is a dermatologist at the University of California, San Francisco School of Medicine and co-writer of an editorial that accompanied the study.

The FDA agrees that more information is needed to further prove whether or not these chemicals have long-term negative effects. The preliminary testing leads one to believe it’s effective, but possibly unsafe. According to the U.S. News website, the FDA has been going back and forth with sunscreen manufacturers about testing the safety of their products.

Dr. Raman Madan, who is a dermatologist at Northwell’s Huntington Hospital located in Huntington, N.Y. concedes that, "While this is a starting point, the relevance of this result is unknown," Madan said. "There needs to be further studies done to show what this really means. While it could have real-world consequences, it could very well mean nothing."

Mineral Sun Blockers

On the plus side, (and yes, there is one here) mineral sun blockers or physical sunscreen have a solid thumbs up from the FDA. The minerals zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are reported to be both effective and safe for use.
While these natural ingredients offer moisturizing properties, which means they can feel thicker when applied, they also tend to be less irritating and are often a good choice for children or those with sensitive skin.

Titanium dioxide is does not contain the oils that are known to clog the pores in our skin, also known as noncomedogenic. Zinc oxide is much like titanium dioxide and is noncomedogenic, but in addition to that it also contains antimicrobial properties. This can aid in the healing of small cuts and other wounds on the body.

While traditional mineral blends tended to give a white pasty glaze that we see in TV commercials, many more recent products go on clearer and even give the appearance of smooth skin. Due to the thicker quality of these natural products, when layered on our skin they can be a contributor to clogged pores, though the chances are less likely than that of chemical sunscreens.

Manufacturers have considered that some find the heavy feeling and the chalky white color unappealing and have made changes in their products. Those who produce titanium dioxide sun blockers have limited the amounts to between 10 and 100 nanometers (nm), which is a unit of measurement for tiny particles, but not yet small enough to penetrate the skin. Manufacturers of zinc oxide products have dropped their quantities to between 30 and 200 nm. Thanks to these changes, these products go on more smoothly and less noticeably.

Of these two minerals, zinc oxide provides a better overall skin protection due to its ability to block different types of UV rays. It’s also more often combined with other UVB blockers. This is considered a broad-spectrum sunscreen. Coming in a close second, titanium dioxide is both safe and effective with its ability to block both UVB and short-wave UVA rays, though it’s not as adept as zinc oxide at blocking long UVA rays.

Things to Keep in Mind

When making your final decision, keep in mind that when applied at its recommended rate, you should be using approximately two tablespoons (or a shot glass size) every two hours while exposed to the sun. For those who sweat or participate in water activities, it could be more often.

And while the thicker feeling and potentially chalky looks of the mineral sun blockers may seem a bit unattractive, these products have proven safe for our environment, where chemical sunscreens have not. Chemical sunscreens that use benzophenone related products (ex: oxybenzone, octinoxate) have actually been banned in Hawaii since 2018 due to their toxic nature. They can cause damage to marine life and areas that are home to coral reefs as well as disrupting the endocrine systems of humans.

This can make one wonder what it’s doing to our bodies. So, when considering what type of sunscreen or sun blocker you want to use, think of the long-range consequences involved with the ingredients. We’ve only got one body to get us through this lifetime, why not protect it right?

Back to blog

Leave a comment

Please note, comments need to be approved before they are published.