Chemical or Mineral. Which Sunscreen Should You Use?
It’s official. Consumers are confused about sunscreen. Like food, there are now zillions of brands and choices vying for your sunscreen dollar. Trying to choose which sunscreen you should use can be a daunting task. In this blog, we’ll try to clear the air a little bit so that you can make a more informed decision on which sunscreen to buy. But before we do, the most important message about sunscreen is that you are better off wearing it than not. Skin cancer is a very real health problem and is on the rise. The science is clear that overexposure to UV solar radiation is the primary driver of skin cancer. A new report by the Melanoma Research Alliance says more than 96,000 people in the United States are expected to be diagnosed with new melanomas in 2019. FACT: If you spend much time outdoors you need to protect yourself from UV skin damage. This includes protective clothing, avoiding the most-dangerous time window of sun exposure (between 10:00 am and 2:00 pm) and, of course, wearing sunscreen.
So, how do you pick a sunscreen? Your choice depends on a few important factors that we’ll break down for you. The key to making an informed consumer choice on any product is having the right (truthful) information. That’s what we’ll try and do here. Once you finish reading, you should be able to make a confident choice on which sunscreen to buy.
Two Kinds of Sunscreen
By far the most common sunscreens available are CHEMICAL and MINERAL. To spot the difference, you will have to read the product label. If the active ingredients include Zinc Oxide or Titanium Dioxide, the sunscreen is considered “mineral-based”. If the active ingredients include a combination of the following: Oxybenzone, Octinoxate, Avobenzone, Homosalate, Octisalate or Octocrylene, then the product is a chemical-based sunscreen. There are pros and cons to mineral -vs- chemical sunscreen so keep reading!
First of all, part of what’s confusing consumers today with sunscreen, is that the word “chemical” has been much maligned—often by well-intended (or maybe not so well intended) groups or industries. They want you to believe that if a sunscreen contains chemicals, it is inherently bad for you and/or the environment. This is absurd. In truth, anything you can put in a bottle or hold in your hand, anything you can breathe or see or ingest or touch is made up of chemicals. The toothpaste you brush your teeth with, the shampoo you wash your hair with, even the water you rinse these products off with contains chemicals. To say a sunscreen is bad for you JUST BECAUSE it contains chemicals is nonsensical. Whether chemicals are good or bad depends largely on what science knows and what happens over time when we interact with them. Let’s address the chemicals in sunscreen to see what all the hubbub is about.
Chemical sunscreens are the most widely used because they are generally the most effective and chemical sunscreens apply and adhere better to the skin. Chemical sunscreens work by bonding to your upper layers of skin, then “absorb” UV radiation and dissipate it off as heat. Chemical sunscreens have been approved by the FDA for many years and deemed safe for humans. However, in recent years, concerns have been raised about some chemicals in sunscreen and how they are contributing to the world-wide decline of coral reefs. Recent studies off the coast of Hawaii and in other locations have implicated Oxybenzone and Octinoxate as being toxic to marine ecosystems, which lead to a recent ban by the Hawaii State Legislature. The ban takes effect in 2021 and includes any chemical sunscreens containing Oxybenzone or Octinoxate.
About 70% of chemical sunscreens on the market contain Oxybenzone, so the Hawaii ban will definitely have an impact on consumers. Although not “officially” banned in most places, some marine/diving vacation spots have begun restricting sunscreen use—particularly sunscreens with Oxybenzone or Octinoxate.
As far as humans go, chemicals in sunscreen have been deemed safe for decades. Accusations about disrupting hormones or causing cancer are typically based on animal studies where the chemicals were ingested or applied in quantities grossly higher than what the average human would encounter, even after a lifetime of regular use. In rare cases, some chemical sunscreens have been associated with rashes in adults with sensitive skin and also allergic reactions in small children and/or infants.
The main difference between mineral and chemical-based sunscreen is that mineral sunscreen rests on top of your skin as opposed to bonding with it. Mineral sunscreen also works differently by “reflecting” UV radiation instead of absorbing it. Zinc Oxide is the most effective mineral blocker, although many mineral sunscreens are a combination of Zinc Oxide and Titanium DiOxide. Both are created by processes that turn the original mineral into small reflective particles.
A common knock on mineral sunscreens is that they leave a white cast on your skin after application, which is one of the primary reasons why most consumers prefer using chemical-based sunscreens. To resolve this issue, manufacturers of mineral sunscreens have found a way to significantly reduce the particle size (below 100 nanometers) in their product. This significantly reduces the white casting effect, but unfortunately creates another problem. Craig Downs, Director of the Haereticus Environmental Lab, which supplied much of the research data that spawned the Hawaii sunscreen ban, also notes that nanoparticles can be toxic to marine life. “Their toxicity arises from both their miniscule size and their interaction with cells (can be breathed by fish), as well as the fact that they cause oxidative stress in sunlight (coral bleaching).”
Although much less significant from a market share standpoint, organic sunscreens are also available online and in specialty shops and are often touted as more natural and “safer” alternatives. However, consumers should be aware that an organic certification does not necessarily guarantee environmental safety. Although likely as safe as any other sunscreen on humans, organic ingredients like essential oils used in organic susncreen also have industrial applications as insect repellents. Other innocuous-sounding ingredients like beeswax can be contaminated with industrial fungicides and insecticides. Silicone polymers and other alternatives to oils are generally not biodegradeable and can bioaccumulate in marine organisms—including the fish we eat.
Making a Choice
So, which sunscreen is the best choice for you? Assuming you are a “mainstream” consumer and are choosing between a chemical or mineral-based sunscreen, you have three main factors to consider. If labeled BROAD SPECTRUM, either type (in SPF 30 or higher) will give you adequate UV protection when applied properly. The THREE decision-making factors to consider are:
Cost— Chemical sunscreens are less expense than mineral sunscreens, often costing half as much.
Application— Mineral sunscreens are topical and typically leave a white cast (if non-nano). Chemical sunscreens bond to your skin and adhere better with no white cast.
Environmental Considerations— Avoid chemical sunscreens with Oxybenzone and Octinoxate when visiting sensitive marine locations. Also avoid mineral sunscreens with nanoparticles.
Making Your Choice
Based on the three decision factors above, here’s a list of sample scenarios to help you hone in on the best sunscreen for you. Odds are one of these scenarios will speak to your particular situation and help you to identify the sunscreen that will keep you sun safe, satisfy your personal taste and be environmentally responsible.
- Scenario 1: Hanging out at the pool? Try a chemical-based SPF 30 or 50 spray or lotion.
- Scenario 2: Planning a scuba trip to a Caribbean reef? Take a mineral-based sunscreen or a chemical-based sunscreen that doesn’t contain Oxybenzone or Octinoxate or preservatives like Parabens.
- Scenario 3: Young children playing in your backyard kiddie pool? A mineral sunscreen is a good choice—it’s the least likely to cause skin irritation and kids don’t care about the white cast.
- Scenario 4: Sport or other outdoor activity? A chemical sunscreen will supply great protection and not sweat off as easily.
We hope you’ve found this article helpful. If you still have a question about choosing the right sunscreen, we’d love to hear from you. Call us toll-free at 1-888-356-8899 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org!
Below are quick links to sunscreen ideal for any activity: