The difference between chemical sunscreens and mineral sunscreens is not easy to understand at first. Both chemical and mineral sunscreen can offer great UV protection. There are some significant differences between them that are important to know, however.

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. 

Don’t forget, water works as a mirror and increases your exposure to dangerous UV rays. Making sure you have 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 between both chemical and mineral formulas. 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. However, The numbers from the Skin Cancer Foundation 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 every other cancer combined.
  • Two people die of skin cancer every hour of every day.
  • In 2012, over 5.4 million cases of skin cancer were treated in that single year alone.
  • Having five 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 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 upriver in a kayak, or just laying on a beach towel getting a tan, you must 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 sun’s UV rays from reaching your skin. They act like a shield. The two principal 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, 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 through band-gap absorption.

Mineral sunscreen has been growing in popularity in recent years. That said, it still accounts for a tiny percentage of all sunscreen sales. This is a two-part issue. 

  • First, mineral sunscreen is thicker and harder to use than chemical. A lot of people don’t like it for that reason. 
  • Second, 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 to a third point;

  • Mineral sunscreen is usually less widely available. Local stores may have one or two types 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. 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. Your skin releases the heat, 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 partly 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 like cooking a burger on the barbecue or in a cast iron pan. When you’re done, you’ll have the same burger, but the method was slightly 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 the human bloodstream at much higher levels than is safe without providing additional safety information. 

We don’t know 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 hazardous. If you must 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 significant benefits of 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 smoothly and absorb quickly without residue. That’s ideal for everyone, especially if you have a darker skin tone. Mineral sunscreens can 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, they’re made by many companies. This has allowed brands to play with their formulations and offer various options. 

You can find chemical sunscreens that have dozens of different fragrances or no fragrances 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 most significant 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 tremendous upside and a reason why brands like Banana Boat are so popular.
  • They’re Long Lasting: In clinical tests, chemical sunscreens have a more prolonged 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, 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 and are recognized as safe for humans and wildlife as long as they are in their non-nano form. That said, one of the big drawbacks of mineral sunscreen is not how dangerous it is but how practical it is.

For many years, mineral sunscreens have carried a stigma. We’ve all seen someone on the beach with a nose painted white with zinc that looks almost like clown makeup. The formulas are better these days, but some are still very noticeable. Some mineral sunscreens can make you look extraordinarily painted and unusual if you have a darker skin tone. Many people are uncomfortable with this effect and choose not to use mineral sunscreens.

In addition, because 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. 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, many people choose not to use mineral sunscreen.

Benefits of Using a Mineral Sunscreen

These are also called physical sunscreens. Very few people 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 boosting their profile.

  • They’re Safe: The big selling point for a physical sunscreen is that the ingredients are 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 exposing the environment to them, mineral sunscreen is a better choice.
  • They’re Gentle: Even though putting something called titanium dioxide on your skin may sound harsh, 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 mineral and not chemical. If you have skin conditions like rosacea or melasma, a chemical sunscreen could worsen them. However, these conditions can benefit from using mineral sunscreen to prevent worsening those issues.

One caveat here is that mineral sunscreens sometimes 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 many people overlook with chemical sunscreens is timing. If you read the directions, most indicate that you must 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 immediately, so you do not need to wait before entering the sun.
  • They Work With Other Substances: One thing that isn’t mentioned much 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 makeup.

Based on a lot of research, I would recommend 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, it’s well-priced, and it works.

Sunscreen Tips

All of that pros and cons aside, any sunscreen is 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 reapply just as often as they’re even more likely to need it if they’re 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 also protect your lips. 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 and the rest of your exposed skin from sun exposure.
  • Don’t forget your eyes. Your eyes can absorb a lot of UV radiation, leading 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 regarding chemical sunscreens. You may have seen some 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 accumulate in coral reefs. 

While these sunscreens may be safe for us, they are much less safe for fish and wildlife. Because of that, chemical sunscreens are banned on several 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 and cause 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 hazardous to humans and harmful to the environment. Fortunately, some sunscreen manufacturers 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 cited as most hazardous to the environment are no longer used. Other companies don’t use those chemicals and have found different formulations.

The biggest con for mineral sunscreens seems to be the white cast they leave on most people’s skin. No one wants to spend 30 minutes slathering themselves in sunscreen only to look like a literal clown. But many 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 hundreds of brands on the market, so finding at least one should always be easy, no matter where you are. Remember to use it according to directions and ensure 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. Therefore, I’d never say don’t use one type over the other. But it doesn’t hurt to plan ahead if you know you like to head out to the beach a lot, play outdoor sports, or do anything in the sun. 

  • Buy some sunscreen that will get the job done well, keep you safe, and ensure 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. If the option is there, choose a mineral sunscreen. But if a chemical is what you have available, then absolutely use that.
  • Ensure you have a broad spectrum sunscreen that protects 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.