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Chemical vs. Mineral Sunscreen: What's the Difference?

Vicky Davis

Medically reviewed by Vicky Davis, FNP

Written by Our Editorial Team

Last updated 2/3/2022

If you spend time outdoors, a good quality, reliable sunscreen is an essential component of your skin care kit. However, with so many different options to choose from, working out which type of sunscreen to use isn’t always easy. 

If you’ve ever spent time looking into sunscreens, you’ve likely come across products marketed as either chemical sunscreens or mineral sunscreens. 

Chemical sunscreens use specific chemicals to create a reaction and stop ultraviolet (UV) rays from damaging your skin. Mineral sunscreens, on the other hand, use ingredients to physically block UV rays from penetrating your skin.

Both types of sunscreen provide protection against skin cancer and physical skin damage, with each offering its own range of strengths and weaknesses.

We’ve discussed these advantages and disadvantages below and explained how you can use either type of sunscreen to keep your skin protected, healthy and looking its best.

Why Sunscreen is Essential for Healthy Skin

Before we get into the specifics of chemical and mineral sunscreens, let’s get one thing out of the way: any type of sunscreen is better than no sunscreen at all.

Whenever you spend time outdoors during the day, you expose your skin to UV radiation — a form of electromagnetic radiation that comes from the sun.

UV radiation is a type of ionizing radiation, meaning it can affect the atoms in living tissue by removing electrons. Exposing your skin to large amounts of UV radiation can harm its DNA, increasing your risk of developing skin cancer.

The UV radiation produced by the sun isn’t powerful enough to penetrate very far into your body, but it can cause serious damage to your skin.

According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, around 90 percent of nonmelanoma skin cancers are associated with excessive sun exposure. Getting sunburned five or more times in your life also doubles your risk of developing melanoma, the most dangerous form of skin cancer. 

Beyond increasing your risk of developing cancer, exposing your skin to bright sunlight without sunscreen can also accelerate the aging process.

Although some aspects of aging are unavoidable, most aging-related skin changes are caused by photoaging — a form of damage to the skin that’s caused by long-term exposure to UV rays and sunlight.

When you spend time outdoors without protection, UV radiation weakens your skin and speeds up the development of wrinkles, fine lines, age spots, hyperpigmentation (blotchy, dark patches of skin), loose skin and damaged blood vessels called spider veins. 

This damage can build up over time, leaving you with prematurely aged skin that causes you to look older than you really are. 

Experts categorize UV radiation from the sun into three different groups:

  • UVA rays. These rays have the lowest amount of energy. They can damage your skin and contribute to premature aging, but they appear to play less of a role in skin cancer than other types of UV radiation.

  • UVB rays. These rays contain more energy than UVA rays. Exposure to UVB radiation can cause sunburn and significantly increase your risk of developing skin cancer.

  • UVC rays. These rays contain the most energy. However, the UVC radiation produced by the sun is absorbed by oxygen molecules in the ozone layer, preventing this type of radiation from causing cancer or skin aging.

While the most effective way to avoid UV radiation is to stay out of the sun completely, that isn’t exactly a good strategy for a fun summer. 

Enter sunscreen, which helps to provide protection against both skin cancer and photoaging by shielding your skin from the damaging effects of UV radiation. 

What’s the Difference Between Chemical and Mineral Sunscreen?

Sunscreen comes in two major types: chemical sunscreens and mineral sunscreens. Both types of sunscreen offer protection against UV radiation and damage, but they work in slightly different ways to keep your skin safe and protected. 

Chemical Sunscreens

Chemical sunscreens work by absorbing UV radiation, then using a chemical reaction to convert the UV rays into heat. They function kind of like a sponge, soaking up the harmful radiation from the sun before it can penetrate into your skin cells.

This protects your skin from the damage that can occur when it’s exposed to excessive amounts of UV radiation. 

Most chemical sunscreens contain a mix of ingredients to prevent both UVA and UVB radiation from damaging your skin. Sunscreens that work this way are sometimes referred to as organic sunscreens.

A variety of different active ingredients are used in chemical sunscreens. Common ingredients include avobenzone, octisalate, oxybenzone, octocrylene, homosalate and octinoxate. Many chemical sunscreens also contain antioxidants, such as vitamins and polyphenols.

Mineral Sunscreens

Mineral sunscreens work by physically shielding your skin from UV radiation. They attach to the surface of your skin and create a physical barrier that deflects UV radiation and prevents it from coming into contact with your skin cells. 

Because mineral sunscreens physically deflect UV radiation in sunlight, they’re often referred to as physical sunscreens. Common active ingredients in mineral sunscreens include zinc oxide, titanium dioxide or both of these ingredients together.

A variety of factors play a role in the effectiveness of a mineral sunscreen, including its reflective index, the size of its particles, the thickness of the sunscreen and how consistently it’s applied to the skin.

Which Type of Sunscreen is Better?

Used correctly, chemical sunscreens and mineral sunscreens both do a good job of protecting your skin from the damage caused by UV radiation. 

In fact, any broad-spectrum sunscreen that has a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30+ and water resistance will provide good protection from sunlight for most people.

Because chemical sunscreens and mineral sunscreen work differently, each type offers its own range of advantages and disadvantages.

One of the biggest advantages of chemical sunscreens is that they’re generally easy to rub into your skin without leaving behind a white, oily residue. After the chemical sunscreen is applied, it usually won’t be visible. 

This might be an advantage if you have a darker skin tone that makes white sunscreen obvious when it’s applied to your skin. In contrast, mineral sunscreens usually leave behind a white cast after they’re applied to your skin. 

Some chemical sunscreens also contain other useful skin care ingredients that can protect your skin from the sunlight or keep it hydrated, although these vary from product to product. 

One potential concern of chemical sunscreens is that certain ingredients used in these products may be absorbed by your body. This is something we’ve discussed in more detail a little further down the page. 

The biggest advantage of mineral sunscreen is that it’s generally less likely to cause irritation or other problems if you have sensitive skin.

According to the American Academy of Dermatology, it’s better to use a mineral sunscreen that contains only zinc oxide and titanium dioxide if you have rosacea, sensitive skin or skin that can sting or burn easily when it’s exposed to regular sunscreen or fragrances.

Minerals sunscreens containing zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are also typically recommended for children.

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Are the Chemicals in Sunscreen Dangerous?

If you’ve ever looked up information about sunscreen online, you may have seen blog posts or news articles that claim that certain ingredients in sunscreen could be dangerous or harmful to your health. 

A lot of this content is the result of a 2019 announcement by the FDA proposing new regulatory requirements for sunscreen products sold in the United States.

The proposed regulations call for additional research and safety information on certain chemical sunscreen ingredients. The ingredients subject to the proposed new rules are:

  • Oxybenzone

  • Octinoxate

  • Octocrylene

  • Ensulizole

  • Avobenzone

  • Octisalate

  • Homosalate

  • Cinoxate

  • Dioxybenzone

  • Padimate O

  • Sulisobenzone

  • Meradimate

Of these active ingredients, only the first seven are commonly used in the United States. None have been deemed unsafe, and the FDA hasn’t recommended that members of the public stop using sunscreen products that contain them.

While research has found that some of these ingredients are absorbed into the bloodstream, it doesn’t suggest that they’re harmful. In fact, the authors of one study published in 2020 stated that current findings don’t suggest that people should stop using chemical sunscreens.

If you have concerns about the ingredients in a sunscreen or other skin care products you use, it’s best to discuss them with your primary care provider or a board-certified dermatologist.

How to Get the Best Results From Sunscreen

Just like any type of sunscreen is better than no sunscreen, poorly applied sunscreen is better for your skin than no sunscreen at all. Still, there are a few simple things that you can do to get the best results and maximum protection from your sunscreen:

  • Choose a type of sunscreen that you like using. The most effective sunscreen is the one you’ll always use. Creams, gels and sticks are all okay, as long as they offer broad-spectrum, SPF 30+ protection.

  • Apply sunscreen 15 minutes before sun exposure. All types of sunscreen take time to offer full UV protection. Try to apply sunscreen uniformly across all areas of exposed skin 15 minutes before you spend time in direct UV light. 

  • Apply enough sunscreen to cover all exposed skin. Make sure to apply sunscreen to any skin that’s exposed to sunlight. Most adults need to apply approximately one ounce of sunscreen to properly cover their body.

  • Reapply sunscreen every two hours. Sunscreen wears off, meaning you’ll need to top up your UV protection if you spend long periods of time outside. Most sunscreens should be reapplied every two hours for optimal protection, or after sweating or swimming.

  • Always use sunscreen during the late morning and early afternoon. UV rays are at their strongest between 10 am and 4 pm, making it especially important to keep your skin as protected as possible during this time of day. 

  • If you’re prone to acne breakouts, use a non-comedogenic sunscreen. This type of sunscreen is less likely to clog your pores. Look for sunscreen that’s labeled “won’t clog pores” or “non-comedogenic.” 

  • Use an SPF 30+, broad-spectrum protection lip balm. Lots of people forget to apply sunscreen to their lips — an area that can easily get sunburned. Try adding a stick of lip balm to your bag whenever you spend time at the park, beach or pool during summer.

By the way, sunscreen works best when it’s paired with other good skin care habits. Our guide to caring for your skin in your 20s, 30s and 40s shares techniques that you can use before and after sun exposure to protect your skin from sun damage and keep it looking its best. 

Which Type of Sunscreen Should You Choose?

If you’re going to the beach, pool, park or just getting ready to spend time outside, the best type of sunscreen is the one you have with you right now. After all, any sunscreen, even if imperfect, is better than no layer of protection at all. 

However, if you’re shopping for sunscreen for men, it’s best to consider choosing one that matches your preferences. This could mean chemical sunscreen if your goal is simplicity and convenience, or if you have a darker skin tone. 

Or, it could mean a mineral sunscreen if you have rosacea, acne-prone skin or a sensitive skin type. 

As we mentioned earlier, the best sunscreen is the one you like using. To find a sunscreen that suits you, consider trying several sunscreen products and going with the one that gives you the best mix of convenience, a natural feel on your skin and daily sun protection. 

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Learn More About Caring for Your Skin

As your body’s largest organ, your skin is definitely a part of yourself that you’ll want to protect and care for. The good news is that maintaining good skin health is both easier and much less expensive than it’s often made out to be.

Our guide to the best skincare products for men covers everything you need to know about the products you’ll want to have inside your skin care toolkit, from how they work to the unique skin benefits they can offer. 

Ready to get started? You can access our complete range of men’s skin care products online, including prescription treatments for acne and skin aging. 

11 Sources

Hims & Hers has strict sourcing guidelines to ensure our content is accurate and current. We rely on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We strive to use primary sources and refrain from using tertiary references.

  1. Is Sunscreen Safe? (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.aad.org/public/everyday-care/sun-protection/sunscreen-patients/is-sunscreen-safe
  2. Ultraviolet (UV) Radiation. (2019, July 10). Retrieved from https://www.cancer.org/cancer/cancer-causes/radiation-exposure/uv-radiation.html
  3. Skin Cancer Facts & Statistics. (2021, January 13). Retrieved from https://www.skincancer.org/skin-cancer-information/skin-cancer-facts/
  4. Photoaging: What You Need to Know About the Other Kind of Aging. (2019, January 10). Retrieved from https://www.skincancer.org/blog/photoaging-what-you-need-to-know/
  5. Wrinkles and Other Sign of Sun-Damaged Skin Can Be Treated. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.aad.org/public/everyday-care/sun-protection/sun-damaged/wrinkles-sun-damage-can-be-treated
  6. Sunscreen FAQs. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.aad.org/public/everyday-care/sun-protection/sunscreen-patients/sunscreen-faqs
  7. Gabros, S., Nessel, T.A. & Zito, P.M. (2021, July 25). Sunscreens And Photoprotection. StatPearls. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK537164/
  8. How to Decode Sunscreen Labels. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.aad.org/public/everyday-care/sun-protection/sunscreen/understand-sunscreen-labels
  9. How Do I Know if I’m Using the Right Sunscreen? (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.aad.org/public/everyday-care/sun-protection/sunscreen-patients/choosing-right-sunscreen
  10. FDA advances new proposed regulation to make sure that sunscreens are safe and effective. (2019, February 21). Retrieved from https://www.fda.gov/news-events/press-announcements/fda-advances-new-proposed-regulation-make-sure-sunscreens-are-safe-and-effective
  11. Matta, M.K., et al. (2020, January 21). Effect of Sunscreen Application on Plasma Concentration of Sunscreen Active Ingredients A Randomized Clinical Trial. JAMA. 323 (3), 256–267. Retrieved from https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/2759002

This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. The information contained herein is not a substitute for and should never be relied upon for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment. Learn more about our editorial standards here.