Mineral or chemical sunscreen: Which should you choose?
As we spend more time outside this summer, you may be wondering how best to protect yourself from the sun’s damaging UV rays and reduce your risk of developing skin cancer.
Certain cancer treatments can also make you more sensitive to the sun, so you want to make sure you’re getting the right protection. Seeking shade is the most effective way to prevent sun exposure, but when you can’t avoid it, there are ways to protect yourself.
When choosing a sunscreen, you’ll see lots of terms, like physical, mineral and chemical. But what do these terms mean? And how do these sunscreens work to protect you from the sun’s damaging rays?
The main difference between mineral (or physical) sunscreens and chemical sunscreens is how they handle the sun’s rays. The active ingredients in mineral sunscreens are titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, which create a barrier on your skin that reflects UV light. They don’t absorb into the skin.
If you take a flash photo of someone wearing mineral sunscreen, you may even see the flash reflected off the product on the skin, Patel says.
“Mineral sunscreens offer the most protection because they’re literally creating a physical separation between you and the sun,” she notes.
You’ll recognize mineral sunscreens by their chalky, white look and feel. That look also helps serve as a reminder for when you should reapply.
“With physical blockers, if you can still see it, it’s still working,” Patel says. These products should be reapplied around every two hours, especially if you’ve been swimming or sweating.
If you don’t like the look of traditional mineral sunscreen, you may choose a tinted option. These offer the same mineral protection with a bit of color, so they blend more naturally, no matter your skin tone.
Chemical sunscreen absorbs UV rays
Most people don’t love the thick texture of mineral sunscreens, so they opt for chemical versions, even though they’re not as effective.
Chemical sunscreens absorb UV rays by changing their chemical structure to reduce sun damage. Most chemical sunscreens contain at least one of the following active ingredients: oxybenzone, octinoxate, cinoxate, dioxybenzone, ensulizole, homosalate, meradimate, octisalate, octocrylene, padimate O, sulisobenzone, and avobenzone. They come in both cream and spray form.
Chemical sunscreens wear off more quickly and need to be reapplied every couple of hours. And though the spray sunscreens may be more convenient, it’s easier to miss spots on your skin with sprays than with cream sunscreens.
“If you’re swimming or in a humid climate like Houston, you’ll need to reapply even more often, since sweat and water wash away chemical sunscreens more quickly,” Patel says.
Hybrid sunscreens offer mineral protection with thinner formula
Hybrid sunscreens have a combination of active ingredients including mineral and chemical compounds, allowing for a thinner formulation that rubs in better.
With these types of sunscreens, you’ll still want to read the label to make sure you’re applying them correctly to get the most protection.
UPF clothing creates physical defense
Certain types of clothing and hats can offer more protection from the sun. These have an “ultraviolet protection factor” or UPF on the label.
Sun-protective clothes can either be chemically treated or created with more tightly woven materials to block the sun. “You’ll want to look for darker colors or a tighter weave on the clothing to get the most protection,” Patel says. Shirts with long sleeves, pants, and hats with a wide brim are a good idea to keep the sun off your skin.
Over time, chemically treated UPF clothing may lose its protection factor, so you should read the labels and replace these items as recommended to avoid getting burned.
Whether you choose mineral, chemical or physical sun protection, Patel says the important thing is to be sun safe. Choose a sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher. “Even if it's not the perfect sunscreen,” she says, “it’s better to wear something rather than nothing.”
Mineral sunscreens offer the most protection because they're literally creating a physical separation between you and the sun.
Anisha Patel, M.D.
Sun-protective clothing, including hats, plays an important part in protecting your skin from the sun's UV rays. But not all hats provide the same level of protection. Whenever possible, choose a wide-brimmed, tightly woven sun hat.