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Mineral vs Chemical Sunscreen: What’s The Difference?

Ian Fortey by Ian Fortey Updated on August 3, 2022. In Beach

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Keeping yourself safe in the sun is important. The stats on skin cancer are terrifying. And that doesn’t even cover the effect the sun has in terms of skin aging. Anyone who spends a lot of time outdoors needs to use sunscreen and use it effectively. This is doubly true if you’re on the water. Whether fishing, heading out in a canoe, or just sitting with your cooler on the beach, the sun offers no escape. Plus the water works as a mirror and increases your exposure to the dangerous UV rays. Making sure you have a sunscreen of at least SPF 15 is crucial. I’d recommend at least SPF 30 for anyone on the beach or on the water, however.

Sunscreen choice can be tricky though. There are so many brands and so many strengths. There are also two main kinds – chemical and mineral sunscreens. Let’s check out why sunscreen is so vitally important, and what each kind brings to the table.

Why Sunscreen is Important

The statistics related to skin cancer are staggering. We all know we need to wear sunscreen because skin cancer is a risk, but the reality of it is very much lost on people. There’s a sense that it’s a thing that will happen to you 30 years from now if you spend a lifetime in the sun, or that it’s an outside chance. The real numbers from the Skin Cancer Foundation, however, do not support this.

  • One in 5 Americans is going to get skin cancer at some point before the age of 70
  • 9,500 people are diagnosed with skin cancer every single day.
  • More people are diagnosed with skin cancer in a year than ever single other cancer combined
  • Two people die of skin cancer every hour of every day.
  • Back in 2012, over 5.4 million cases of skin cancer were treated that single year alone
  • Having 5 or more sunburns in your life will double your risk of melanoma. Just one sunburn in your entire life that results in blisters can double your risk.
  • 90% of non-melanoma skin cancer is a result of UV exposure from the sun
  • Regular use of sunscreen that is SPF 15 or higher can reduce your risk of getting squamous cell carcinoma by 40% and melanoma by 50%

These are just some of the statistics that show why using sunscreen is so important. So learning the difference between chemical and mineral sunscreen is vital for anyone who spends time outdoors. Whether you’re out on a jon boat fishing, heading up river in a kayak, or just laying on a beach towel getting a tan, you need to take care of yourself. This is even more important if you’re out with kids who need to be shown what to use and how.

What is a Mineral Sunscreen?

A mineral sunscreen will use mineral-based formulas to prevent the UV rays of the sun from reaching your skin. They act like a shield, basically. The two main minerals you’ll see are zinc and titanium dioxide. When suspended in a cream or lotion formula which also includes various moisturizers and binding agents and such, the molecules of these minerals protect your skin in a way that does not allow the sun to reach you. The UV rays are blocked and you run a much lower risk of getting a burn. Some uv rays are reflected but most are absorbed into the minerals themselves through a process called band-gap absorption.

Mineral sunscreen has been growing in popularity in recent years. That said, it accounts for a very small percentage of all sunscreen sales. This is a two-part issue. First is that mineral sunscreen is thicker and harder to use than chemical. A lot of people don’t like it for that reason. Second is that mineral sunscreen is often more expensive. Chemical sunscreens have existed for many years and are made by what have generally been trusted brands like Coppertone and Banana Boat. You can get a bottle at nearly any store and it’s usually very affordable while mineral sunscreen is usually more expensive for a lower quantity. And that leads into a third point where mineral sunscreen is usually not as widely available. There may be one or two types in local stores compared to many chemical sunscreen options.

What is a Chemical Sunscreen?

Chemical sunscreens are texturally much lighter and smoother than mineral sunscreen. They use compounds, and there are many of them, to absorb the UV radiation from the sun rather than deflect it. So in this case your skin actually does absorb the UV rays. However, the active ingredients in the chemical sunscreen absorb that radiation and a chemical reaction converts it into heat. The heat is released by your skin and thus the harmful effects have been prevented.

Chemical sunscreens are the most popular sunscreens in America and around the world. At least one study has shown that about 96% of all sunscreen sold is chemical sunscreen. And, to be fair, that is in part because it’s been around a lot longer on the mass market. Most of us grew up using this kind of sunscreen. It’s cheaper to produce and more culturally accepted and expected than mineral sunscreen.

Mineral and Chemical Sunscreen: Which is Better?

Both of these sunscreens do the same job, just in different ways. It’s a bit like cooking a burger on the barbecue or in a cast iron pan. You’ll have the same burger when you’re done, but the method was just a little different. That said, there are some clear benefits to choosing one over the other.

Chemical sunscreens are considered as safe for humans as mineral sunscreens, at least right now. The FDA has not made any warnings about the compounds inside of them. However, there are several chemicals that they have requested additional safety information about. These include:

  • Oxybenzone
  • Avobenzone
  • Octisalate
  • Octocrylene
  • Homosalate
  • Octinoxate
  • Cinoxate
  • Dioxybenzone
  • Ensulizole
  • Meradimate
  • Padimate O
  • Sulisobenzone

The FDA found that four chemicals – avobenzone, oxybenzone, octocrylene, and ecamsule – are absorbed into human bloodstream at much higher levels than is safe without additional safety information being provided. Which means we technically don’t know right now if these are dangerous to your health. We have no information to say they are, so don’t think that. But we have no idea what the long term effects, if any, may be.

Now that sounds potentially scary but remember, no one has said these chemicals are dangerous to humans yet. But what we do know is that UV rays are very dangerous. If you have to choose between chemical sunscreens and nothing, choose a chemical sunscreen.

Benefits of Choosing a Chemical Sunscreen

They’re Familiar: Most of us probably grew up using this sunscreen and are very much aware of how it looks and feels. One of the big benefits to chemical sunscreen is that familiarity. There are no surprises here. If you use a trusted brand you know how it looks and smells and it’s really easy to use. All you need to do is rub it on your skin and you’re done.

They’re Clean: By this we don’t mean mineral sunscreens are dirty, but they can go on thick and chalky. Chemical sunscreens tend to go on smooth and absorb quickly without residue. That’s ideal for everyone, but especially if you have a darker skin tone. Mineral sunscreens can really stand out on darker skin and not many people like that. Chemical sunscreens disappear right away, which is often much more appealing.

They’re Diverse: Because chemical sunscreens have been around for a long time now they’re made by a lot of different companies. This has allowed brands to play with their formulations and give you a variety of options. You can find chemical sunscreens that have dozens of different fragrances or no fragrance at all. They can be made with coconut, green tea, jojoba, shea butter, fruit extracts, and numerous moisturizers and other compounds to make your skin look and feel refreshed.

They’re Cheap: The cost of chemical sunscreen is one of its biggest benefits. You can get a pretty large bottle of SPF 30+ from a store like WalMart for just a few bucks. It will last you a while and it works, so why not? That’s a great upside and a reason why brands like Banana Boat are so popular.

They’re Long Lasting: In clinical tests, chemical sunscreens have proven to have a longer sun-protecting effect than mineral sunscreens. That means you have to reapply less often and worry less about whether you’re still being protected when you’re out and about, which is a pretty big deal.

They Work: Statistics, as we’ve seen, can be pretty scary. But the stats on sunscreen show it can and does help prevent skin cancer and reduce risk. So when you combine all of these factors together, that’s a great reason to put your trust in a chemical sunscreen.

Are Mineral Sunscreens Potentially Dangerous?

Mineral sunscreens are chiefly made using zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. These minerals have been in use for many years now and are recognized as safe for both humans and wildlife as long as they are in their non-nano form. That said, one of the big drawbacks for a mineral sunscreen is not how dangerous it is but how practical it is.

For many years, mineral sunscreens have carried a bit of a stigma. We’ve all seen someone on the beach with a nose painted white with zinc that looks almost like clown make up. The formulas are better these days, but some of them are still very noticeable. If you have a darker skin tone, some mineral sunscreens can make you look extremely painted and unusual. A lot of people are not comfortable with this effect and choose to not use mineral sunscreens.

In addition, because a mineral sunscreen is a physical block to the sun, it often goes on pretty thick. Even applying some brands of mineral sunscreen can be a chore. Just getting your body covered can take over 30 minutes depending on the brand.

Practically speaking, when compared to the effects of getting cancer, the minor nuisance of applying thick sunscreen doesn’t seem like a big deal at all. But we all know what it’s like in the moment when you’re in a rush. It’s hard to think about those future consequences when you just want to go already. For that reason, a lot of people choose to not use a mineral sunscreen.

Benefits of Using a Mineral Sunscreen

These are also called physical sunscreens. Very few people actually use mineral sunscreens but the number is growing. Internet shopping has made them much more popular and consumers don’t need to rely on a store having different kinds in stock. Plus, further education about the benefits of mineral sunscreens is really boosting their profile.

They’re Safe: The big selling point for a physical sunscreen is that the ingredients are, obviously, not chemical. This is very appealing to people who prefer organic and environmentally safe products. Reef-safe sunscreens are typically mineral sunscreens. If you’re worried about absorbing chemicals and also exposing the environment to them, a mineral sunscreen is a better choice for you.

They’re Gentle: Even though it may sound harsh to put something called titanium dioxide on your skin, quite the opposite is true. If you have sensitive skin and find that chemical sunscreens will sometimes give you a rash or cause an acne breakout, a mineral sunscreen could be just the thing. For that reason you’ll notice that most sunscreens designed specifically for babies are actually mineral and not chemical. If you have skin conditions like rosacea or melasma, a chemical sunscreen could make them even worse. However, these conditions can benefit from using a mineral sunscreen to prevent the worsening of those issues.

One caveat here is, ironically, sometimes mineral sunscreens can make acne worse in a small number of people. This is because it sits on your skin and blocks pores, which can cause a bad reaction depending on your skin type.

They’re Fast: Something a lot of people overlook with chemical sunscreens is timing. If you read the directions, most indicate that you need to apply well before sun exposure. Typically you’ll need about 20 to 30 minutes of lead time so your skin can absorb the sunscreen before you head out. A mineral sunscreen protects you right away so you have no need to wait before going into the sun.

They Work With Other Substances: One thing that isn’t mentioned a lot but is worth noting is how sunscreens work with other products you may apply to your skin. If you are using a moisturizer or makeup, you probably can’t apply a chemical sunscreen over top of it. The chemical sunscreen needs to be absorbed into your skin, and if you have something else on, it will create a barrier to that. At best it will ruin your makeup, at worst the chemical sunscreen won’t work. But a mineral sunscreen is safe to apply over other moisturizers and make up.

In my opinion, based on a lot of research, I would recommend a mineral sunscreen as a first choice. Something like Thinksport SPF 50+ mineral sunscreen which we have recommended on the site before. It’s top quality, it’s strong, and it’s well-priced and it works.

Sunscreen Tips

All of that pros and cons aside, any sunscreen is literally better than no sunscreen. Here are some tips to ensure your mineral and chemical sunscreens are effective.

  • Always choose at least an SPF 15
  • Make sure to reapply as directed or at least every 4 hours. Many dermatologists now suggest that you reapply every two hours. It can seem like a nuisance but, don’t forget, this is a matter of safety. Make sure the kids are reapplying just as often as they’re even more likely to need it if they’re being active.
  • Reapply if you’ve been working up a sweat or swimming
  • Make sure to get your ears and the back of your neck, those places that are often overlooked
  • Don’t forget your lips. There are sunscreen lip balms you can buy that will protect your lips as well. Even though your lips look darker than the rest of your skin, they have very little melanin which is the substance that naturally protects you from the sun’s rays. You should always protect your lips from sun exposure along with the rest of your exposed skin.
  • Don’t forget your eyes. Your eyes can absorb a lot of UV radiation which can lead to cataracts and blindness later in life. UV blocking sunglasses are the best way to protect yourself.

What Do Chemical Sunscreens Do To The Environment?

Here’s a sticking point for some people when it comes to chemical sunscreens. You may have seen a number of reef-friendly sunscreens on the market. These are made without chemicals like avobenzone and oxybenzone because those chemicals have been found in fish and other sea life, and also accumulate in coral reefs. So while they may be safe for us, they are much less safe for fish and wildlife. Because of that, chemical sunscreens are actually banned on a number of beaches including those in Hawaii, unless they are reef safe.

The chemicals in some sunscreens have been shown to cause decreases in fertility rates in some wildlife as well as causing bleaching and death in coral reefs.

How to Make the Right Choice

The biggest con for chemical sunscreens is the potentially dangerous chemicals they contain. They may be dangerous to humans, and they have been shown to be dangerous for the environment. Fortunately, there are some sunscreen manufacturers that are no longer making sunscreen with some of those more dangerous substances. They still use some of the chemicals we listed, but the big four that have been cited as most dangerous to the environment are no longer in use. Other companies don’t use any of those chemicals at all and have found other formulations.

The biggest con for mineral sunscreens seems to be that white cast they leave on most people’s skin. No one wants to spend 30 minutes slathering themselves in sunscreen only to end up looking like a literal clown. But a lot of newer and more advanced brands are on the market these days. The white cast is far more subdued in some and all but non-existent in others.

Choose your sunscreen based on what works best for you. There are literally hundreds of brands on the market, so finding at least one should never be hard no matter where you are. Just remember to use it according to directions and make sure it’s strong enough to make a difference.

The Bottom Line

It can’t be said enough that any sun protection is better than none. For that reason, I’d never say don’t use one type over the other. But if you know you like to head out to the beach a lot, or play outdoor sports, or anything in the sun, then it doesn’t hurt to plan ahead. Buy some sunscreen that will get the job done well and keep you safe and make sure you use it every time you head out. Mineral sunscreen seems to be better overall than chemical sunscreen. In terms of how it can protect you from the sun, and how it interacts with the environment as well. If the option is there, choose a mineral sunscreen. But if chemical is what you have available then absolutely use that.

Make sure you have a broad spectrum sunscreen capable of protecting you from UVA and UVB rays. Make sure you know how often it needs to be reapplied and follow the directions carefully. As always, stay safe and have fun.

About Ian

My grandfather first took me fishing when I was too young to actually hold up a rod on my own. As an avid camper, hiker, and nature enthusiast I'm always looking for a new adventure.

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