Making Sense of Sunscreen: Understanding the Difference Between Mineral and Chemical Sunscreens

3 min read

April 18,2024
SKIN CARE

Making Sense of Sunscreen: Understanding the Difference Between Mineral and Chemical Sunscreens

3 min read

April 18,2024
SKIN CARE
As summer approaches and the sun becomes a nearly constant companion, one question always comes up: what form of sunscreen is best? Today, you’ll discover the truth about mineral and chemical sunscreens, see why some options are more effective than others, and gain the knowledge to make the right choice for your skin.
As summer approaches and the sun becomes a nearly constant companion, one question always comes up: what form of sunscreen is best? Today, you’ll discover the truth about mineral and chemical sunscreens, see why some options are more effective than others, and gain the knowledge to make the right choice for your skin.
01

Selecting the Right Sunscreen for Your Needs

With so many options available, navigating the sunscreen aisle can feel overwhelming. Chemical or mineral? Zinc oxide or titanium dioxide? Non-nano or conventional sunscreen? The benefits of using sunscreen are clear. But their efficacy and safety depend on their specific ingredients and mechanism of action, which you’ll learn about here shortly.
01

Selecting the Right Sunscreen for Your Needs

With so many options available, navigating the sunscreen aisle can feel overwhelming. Chemical or mineral? Zinc oxide or titanium dioxide? Non-nano or conventional sunscreen? The benefits of using sunscreen are clear. But their efficacy and safety depend on their specific ingredients and mechanism of action, which you’ll learn about here shortly.
02

Exploring Sunscreen Types: Chemical vs Mineral Sunscreen

In general, sunscreens fall within 2 categories: chemical and mineral (aka physical). One of the main differences is that chemical sunscreens primarily absorb UV light whereas physical sunscreens reflect it. In cosmetics and personal care products, chemical sunscreens are typically more prevalent since they’re light-weight, non-sticky, and easy to blend. This is due to their small particle size and the fact that they’re organic, carbon-based compounds, which helps them absorb more easily into your skin.In contrast, physical sunscreens form a physical barrier on your skin, similar to a protective shield. Their larger particle size means they’re less likely to absorb into your skin and trigger a reaction, making them more suitable for sensitive skin. However, their larger particle size also poses usability issues, such as leaving a white cast and being difficult to blend, especially for higher melanin skin. (1)
02

Exploring Sunscreen Types: Chemical vs Mineral Sunscreen

In general, sunscreens fall within 2 categories: chemical and mineral (aka physical). One of the main differences is that chemical sunscreens primarily absorb UV light whereas physical sunscreens reflect it. In cosmetics and personal care products, chemical sunscreens are typically more prevalent since they’re light-weight, non-sticky, and easy to blend. This is due to their small particle size and the fact that they’re organic, carbon-based compounds, which helps them absorb more easily into your skin.In contrast, physical sunscreens form a physical barrier on your skin, similar to a protective shield. Their larger particle size means they’re less likely to absorb into your skin and trigger a reaction, making them more suitable for sensitive skin. However, their larger particle size also poses usability issues, such as leaving a white cast and being difficult to blend, especially for higher melanin skin. (1)
03

Chemical Sunscreens

Some of the most common chemical sunscreen ingredients include avobenzone, oxybenzone, octocrylene, homosalate, octisalate, and octinoxate. (2) Because these types of ingredients need to be absorbed into your skin to do their job, it takes approximately 30 minutes for them to take effect, making them inconvenient for those spontaneous beach days.
03

Chemical Sunscreens

Some of the most common chemical sunscreen ingredients include avobenzone, oxybenzone, octocrylene, homosalate, octisalate, and octinoxate. (2) Because these types of ingredients need to be absorbed into your skin to do their job, it takes approximately 30 minutes for them to take effect, making them inconvenient for those spontaneous beach days.

How Chemical Sunscreens Work

Chemical sunscreens work by soaking up UV rays. Kind of like a tiny sponge, they absorb UV light energy, then release it as heat within your skin. (3) But here’s the catch. Some of the ingredients in chemical sunscreens are prone to degradation and oxidation when exposed to UV light over time. That means the one you’re using may also include some kind of stabilizing agent to make sure it’s effective, or may generate harmful free radicals and reactive oxygen species (ROS). (4)

How Chemical Sunscreens Work

Chemical sunscreens work by soaking up UV rays. Kind of like a tiny sponge, they absorb UV light energy, then release it as heat within your skin. (3) But here’s the catch. Some of the ingredients in chemical sunscreens are prone to degradation and oxidation when exposed to UV light over time. That means the one you’re using may also include some kind of stabilizing agent to make sure it’s effective, or may generate harmful free radicals and reactive oxygen species (ROS). (4)

Evaluating Chemical Sunscreens’ Efficacy and Safety

While it’s true that chemical sunscreens can protect against UVA and UVB rays, they may end up doing more harm than good. Since chemical sunscreens need to penetrate the skin to work, they end up interacting with your cells on a much deeper level. And with that intimate interaction comes increased opportunities for adverse reactions.In fact, studies show that even after just a single application, chemical sunscreen ingredients can linger in your body at unsafe levels for over 2 weeks. (5) Plus, many of these compounds are bioaccumulative (6, 7, 8), meaning they can build up over time and potentially cause hormone disruption (9) and neurotoxicity. (10) Not exactly what you want from a sunscreen.

Evaluating Chemical Sunscreens’ Efficacy and Safety

While it’s true that chemical sunscreens can protect against UVA and UVB rays, they may end up doing more harm than good. Since chemical sunscreens need to penetrate the skin to work, they end up interacting with your cells on a much deeper level. And with that intimate interaction comes increased opportunities for adverse reactions.In fact, studies show that even after just a single application, chemical sunscreen ingredients can linger in your body at unsafe levels for over 2 weeks. (5) Plus, many of these compounds are bioaccumulative (6, 7, 8), meaning they can build up over time and potentially cause hormone disruption (9) and neurotoxicity. (10) Not exactly what you want from a sunscreen.
04

Mineral Sunscreens

When it comes to shielding your skin from UV radiation, mineral sunscreens are a more health-conscious choice. That’s because titanium dioxide and zinc oxide (the two common ingredients in mineral sunscreens), offer protection by creating a physical barrier on top of your skin rather than absorbing into it. They also offer broad spectrum protection, shielding your skin from both UVA and UVB rays.
04

Mineral Sunscreens

When it comes to shielding your skin from UV radiation, mineral sunscreens are a more health-conscious choice. That’s because titanium dioxide and zinc oxide (the two common ingredients in mineral sunscreens), offer protection by creating a physical barrier on top of your skin rather than absorbing into it. They also offer broad spectrum protection, shielding your skin from both UVA and UVB rays.

How Mineral Sunscreens Work

Titanium dioxide and zinc oxide have a high refractive index, which means they protect your skin from sun damage by reflecting UV light. Their particles act like microscopic deflector shields, naturally reflecting and scattering the sun’s harmful UV rays away in different directions. Not only that, mineral sunscreens start working right away — in 15 minutes or less in most cases.And because they sit on top of the skin rather than absorbing into it, mineral sunscreens are less likely to cause irritation. They also have anti-inflammatory and non-comedogenic properties, which is great news if you have sensitive skin or are prone to skin allergies or breakouts. (1, 11)

How Mineral Sunscreens Work

Titanium dioxide and zinc oxide have a high refractive index, which means they protect your skin from sun damage by reflecting UV light. Their particles act like microscopic deflector shields, naturally reflecting and scattering the sun’s harmful UV rays away in different directions. Not only that, mineral sunscreens start working right away — in 15 minutes or less in most cases.And because they sit on top of the skin rather than absorbing into it, mineral sunscreens are less likely to cause irritation. They also have anti-inflammatory and non-comedogenic properties, which is great news if you have sensitive skin or are prone to skin allergies or breakouts. (1, 11)

What’s More Effective: Zinc Oxide or Titanium Dioxide?

Mineral sunscreens can be formulated with zinc oxide, titanium dioxide, or a combination of both. Each is regarded as “generally safe and effective” by the FDA, but there’s more to the story. (12) When it comes to broad spectrum protection, zinc oxide tends to outshine titanium dioxide, especially when it comes to the UVA rays that cause premature aging. While titanium dioxide’s effects can vary based on particle size and overall formulation (13), zinc oxide is known to deliver better protection across the full UV spectrum. That said, zinc oxide’s benefits go beyond just blocking UV radiation. This celebrated mineral has been used for centuries in everything from wound care to diaper rash treatments. (14)

What’s More Effective: Zinc Oxide or Titanium Dioxide?

Mineral sunscreens can be formulated with zinc oxide, titanium dioxide, or a combination of both. Each is regarded as “generally safe and effective” by the FDA, but there’s more to the story. (12) When it comes to broad spectrum protection, zinc oxide tends to outshine titanium dioxide, especially when it comes to the UVA rays that cause premature aging. While titanium dioxide’s effects can vary based on particle size and overall formulation (13), zinc oxide is known to deliver better protection across the full UV spectrum. That said, zinc oxide’s benefits go beyond just blocking UV radiation. This celebrated mineral has been used for centuries in everything from wound care to diaper rash treatments. (14)

Non-Nano is Safer and Goes On Smoother

Mineral sunscreens haven’t always been the easiest to apply. That white, chalky cast and heavy texture isn’t exactly a recipe for daily wearability. To boost usability, many brands turn to mineral nanoparticles – their smaller size making application more seamless and lightweight.Here’s the problem though. Shrinking down mineral UV filters also introduce some concerning risks remarkably similar to those controversial chemical sunscreen agents. While larger mineral particles are unlikely to penetrate into the bloodstream, studies show that nanoparticles have the potential to slip past the skin's protective barrier. (15)Once inside, these tiny particles may accumulate in organs and wreak havoc by producing reactive oxygen species when exposed to UV radiation. They can damage cells, impair tissue function, and pose particular problems if you have a compromised skin barrier. (1)The environmental impacts are also problematic. Evidence suggests mineral nanoparticles can make their way into aquatic ecosystems and disrupt delicate marine life - with titanium dioxide nanoparticles being a prime culprit. (1) Zinc oxide nanoparticles show a lower risk of skin penetration than titanium dioxide nanoparticles, making them a relatively safer mineral option, however, concerns around their long-term impacts still exist. (1)

Non-Nano is Safer and Goes On Smoother

Mineral sunscreens haven’t always been the easiest to apply. That white, chalky cast and heavy texture isn’t exactly a recipe for daily wearability. To boost usability, many brands turn to mineral nanoparticles – their smaller size making application more seamless and lightweight.Here’s the problem though. Shrinking down mineral UV filters also introduce some concerning risks remarkably similar to those controversial chemical sunscreen agents. While larger mineral particles are unlikely to penetrate into the bloodstream, studies show that nanoparticles have the potential to slip past the skin's protective barrier. (15)Once inside, these tiny particles may accumulate in organs and wreak havoc by producing reactive oxygen species when exposed to UV radiation. They can damage cells, impair tissue function, and pose particular problems if you have a compromised skin barrier. (1)The environmental impacts are also problematic. Evidence suggests mineral nanoparticles can make their way into aquatic ecosystems and disrupt delicate marine life - with titanium dioxide nanoparticles being a prime culprit. (1) Zinc oxide nanoparticles show a lower risk of skin penetration than titanium dioxide nanoparticles, making them a relatively safer mineral option, however, concerns around their long-term impacts still exist. (1)
05

The Gold Standard in Mineral Sunscreen

Whenever possible, opt for non-nano mineral sunscreens. Not only is it highly stable under most conditions, it’s particles are large enough (bigger than 100 nanometers) to avoid penetrating your skin, and therefore eliminating the risk of entering your bloodstream. (16) Non-nano zinc oxide is also the safest for the oceans and marine life as the larger particle sizes are not water soluble, and so they are more likely to settle on to the seafloor and becomes a natural part of the sediment.
05

The Gold Standard in Mineral Sunscreen

Whenever possible, opt for non-nano mineral sunscreens. Not only is it highly stable under most conditions, it’s particles are large enough (bigger than 100 nanometers) to avoid penetrating your skin, and therefore eliminating the risk of entering your bloodstream. (16) Non-nano zinc oxide is also the safest for the oceans and marine life as the larger particle sizes are not water soluble, and so they are more likely to settle on to the seafloor and becomes a natural part of the sediment.
06

Introducing OS-01 BODY SPF

Recognizing the importance of safe, effective sun protection, we’re excited to introduce our newest broad spectrum body mineral sunscreen, OS-01 BODY SPF (coming soon!). Formulated with 100% non-nano zinc oxide, powerful antioxidants, and our proprietary OS-01 peptide, this daily collagen-supporting formula* blends effortlessly, shielding your skin from UV damage, while targeting skin aging, and keeping skin nourished and smooth. Pair that with OS-01 FACE SPF (formerly OS-01 SHIELD) and you have a trifecta of protection against UV rays, collagen degradation*, and cellular aging from head to toe. (16)*Based on data from clinical studies and/or lab studies conducted on human skin samples, 3D skin models, and skin cells in the OneSkin lab. Explore more at oneskin.co/claims
06

Introducing OS-01 BODY SPF

Recognizing the importance of safe, effective sun protection, we’re excited to introduce our newest broad spectrum body mineral sunscreen, OS-01 BODY SPF (coming soon!). Formulated with 100% non-nano zinc oxide, powerful antioxidants, and our proprietary OS-01 peptide, this daily collagen-supporting formula* blends effortlessly, shielding your skin from UV damage, while targeting skin aging, and keeping skin nourished and smooth. Pair that with OS-01 FACE SPF (formerly OS-01 SHIELD) and you have a trifecta of protection against UV rays, collagen degradation*, and cellular aging from head to toe. (16)*Based on data from clinical studies and/or lab studies conducted on human skin samples, 3D skin models, and skin cells in the OneSkin lab. Explore more at oneskin.co/claims
Key Takeaways:
  • There are generally 2 categories of sunscreens, chemical and mineral (aka physical)
  • Chemical sunscreens absorb UV light and can enter the bloodstream, while mineral sunscreens create a physical barrier and reflect UV rays
  • Chemical sunscreen ingredients are also shown to stay in the body at unsafe levels for over 2 weeks
  • Mineral sunscreens offer broad spectrum protection (UVA and UVB rays) and consist of zinc oxide, titanium dioxide, or a combination of both; they’re also anti-inflammatory and non-comedogenic
  • Zinc oxide is known to deliver better full spectrum protection than titanium dioxide
  • Non-nano zinc oxide is considered the gold standard of sunscreens due to its protective shield and larger particle size which is safer for skin and marine life
Key Takeaways:
  • There are generally 2 categories of sunscreens, chemical and mineral (aka physical)
  • Chemical sunscreens absorb UV light and can enter the bloodstream, while mineral sunscreens create a physical barrier and reflect UV rays
  • Chemical sunscreen ingredients are also shown to stay in the body at unsafe levels for over 2 weeks
  • Mineral sunscreens offer broad spectrum protection (UVA and UVB rays) and consist of zinc oxide, titanium dioxide, or a combination of both; they’re also anti-inflammatory and non-comedogenic
  • Zinc oxide is known to deliver better full spectrum protection than titanium dioxide
  • Non-nano zinc oxide is considered the gold standard of sunscreens due to its protective shield and larger particle size which is safer for skin and marine life

Reviewed by Alessandra Zonari, PhD, Chief Scientific Officer (CSO) and Co-Founder of OneSkin

Alessandra earned her Master’s degree in stem cell biology, and her PhD in skin regeneration and tissue engineering at the Federal University of Minas Gerais in Brazil in collaboration with the 3B’s Research Group in Portugal. Alessandra did a second post-doctoral at the University of Coimbra in Portugal. She is a co-inventor of three patents and has published 20 peer-reviewed papers in scientific journals.

Reviewed by Alessandra Zonari, PhD, Chief Scientific Officer (CSO) and Co-Founder of OneSkin

Alessandra earned her Master’s degree in stem cell biology, and her PhD in skin regeneration and tissue engineering at the Federal University of Minas Gerais in Brazil in collaboration with the 3B’s Research Group in Portugal. Alessandra did a second post-doctoral at the University of Coimbra in Portugal. She is a co-inventor of three patents and has published 20 peer-reviewed papers in scientific journals.

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