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Chemical vs. mineral sunscreen? Sunblock vs. sunscreen? What’s the difference and what should you use? I answer your burning questions right here, right now!
Summer’s almost here, which means people will be spending more time in the sun. That also means it’s important to protect your family’s skin and health by using safe, nontoxic, mineral sunscreen. But where do you start?
If you’re not sure, don’t worry because I’m here to help!
I have plenty to talk about, so let’s get started!
Sunblock vs. Sunscreen
While we often use the terms sunscreen and sunblock interchangeably, there is a difference between these types of products.
Sunblock physically blocks and reflects sunlight off the skin. It’s what people typically refer to as “mineral” sunscreen/sunblock. Other terms for this type of sunblock are physical and natural. These are products that use zinc oxide and titanium dioxide as the active ingredients for sun protection.
Sunscreen absorbs the sun’s rays. These are what people typically call “chemical” sunscreens/sunblocks. The most common active ingredients in these products are oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate, and octinoxate.
Some products contain both mineral and chemical ingredients. (Technically, in the world of science, even water is a chemical compound. Ya know H2O? That’s a chemical. But we won’t get into all that here.)
For this blog post, I use the terms “sunscreen” and “sunblock” for both mineral and chemical products.
And now to answer your burning question: Is mineral or chemical sunscreen better?
Why you should wear mineral sunscreen
A January 2020 study by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) showed that six chemical sunscreens are absorbed into the body’s bloodstream after a single use, and that they can remain in the body for extended periods of time. The FDA has also stated that one of those chemicals – oxybenzone – has been found in human breast milk, amniotic fluid, urine, and blood plasma.
Chemical ingredients in sunscreen may cause endocrine and hormone disruption, and there’s not enough data on the developmental/reproductive toxicity or carcinogenicity of these chemicals to determine their safety.
Mineral sunscreen ingredients, on the other hand, are deemed safe for use by the FDA. The two mineral ingredients are zinc oxide and titanium dioxide.
Why risk using chemical sunscreens when there are better options available in mineral sunscreens?
Also, several of those chemical sunscreens are harmful to aquatic life. The two biggest culprits – oxybenzone or octinoxate – cause coral bleaching in the world’s oceans. In other words, the coral turns white and becomes susceptible to disease.
That’s why you’ll see some sunscreens labeled as “reef safe” or “reef friendly,” but they may still be harmful to other marine life. Octocrylene, along with oxybenzone and octinoxate, have been found at detectable levels in various fish species worldwide.
The National Park Service says that 4,000- 6,000 tons of sunscreen enter reef areas every year. To preserve marine ecosystems, beginning Jan. 1, 2021, Hawaii will ban the sale, offer of sale, or distribution of any sunscreen that contains oxybenzone or octinoxate without a prescription issued by a licensed healthcare provider.
To minimize your impact on the oceans, experts recommend using mineral sunscreens containing non-nano zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, and wearing sun protective clothing so you have less skin that needs to be covered with sunscreen.
The FDA places active sunscreen ingredients into three safety categories:
- Category I – Generally Recognized As Safe (GRASE). There is sufficient existing data that supports a determination by the FDA that these ingredients are safe.
- Category II – Unsafe. The FDA’s evaluation of the existing safety data caused a determination that the risks with these ingredients outweigh the benefits.
- Category III – Additional data needed. The FDA needs additional data before making a determination on the safety of these ingredients.
Active Sunscreen Ingredients to Use
Of the 16 currently marketed active ingredients in sunscreen, the FDA only lists two as “Generally Recognized As Safe” (GRASE): zinc oxide and titanium dioxide.
Basically, you should only use mineral sunscreens with zinc oxide and titanium dioxide as the active ingredients. Both are safe in concentrations up to 25 percent.
Between the two, zinc oxide is the best choice because it provides greater broad spectrum protection. Titanium dioxide is effective against UVB rays, but it does not provide as much protection against UVA rays. Zinc oxide provides protection against both. Titanium dioxide should be used in combination with zinc oxide to provide full broad spectrum protection. (More information on UVA and UVB rays is later in this post.)
Another thing to look for is non-nano zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, which means that they do not contain very small particles that could be absorbed by the skin and enter the bloodstream. However, the FDA states that the absorption of zinc oxide and titanium dioxide – regardless of particle size – into or through the skin is very unlikely and that even if a little amount did absorb, it would not result in adverse health effects. Even the Environmental Working Group (EWG) agrees! Non-nano is still best to protect marine life.
While zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are safe when applied in creams and lotions to the skin, there are concerns about respiratory damage if inhaled in spray or powder form. It’s safest to use mineral sunscreens in cream and lotion form. (I’ll talk more about this further down.)
Active Sunscreen Ingredients to Avoid
The FDA lists two ingredients – PABA and trolamine salicylate – as unsafe to use, but there are plenty of others with safety or environmental concerns.
I’m not going to go into too much detail with these ingredients because I think it’s information overload, but if you want to learn more, you can read the FDA’s proposed rule on Sunscreen Drug Products for Over-the-Counter Human Use.
Avoid these ingredients because they’re unsafe:
- PABA (Aminobenzoic acid)
- Trolamine salicylate
Avoid these ingredients because there’s not enough data, and because several are damaging to the environment:
- Homosalate (may be harmful to marine life)
- Octinoxate (not safe for coral reefs)
- Octisalate (may be harmful to marine life)
- Octocrylene (may be harmful to marine life)
- Oxybenzone (not safe for coral reefs)
- Padimate O
Rather than remembering all 14 bad ones, just remember the two good ones (zinc oxide and titanium dioxide).
Inactive mineral sunscreen ingredients to avoid
As you would with your regular personal care products, you want to avoid ingredients toxic to humans like parabens, phthalates, synthetic fragrances/parfum, and a whole bunch of acronyms (BHA, DEA, PEGs, SLS, SLES, etc.).
Some inactive ingredients, like parabens and phenoxyethanol, are also harmful to marine life. Phenoxyethanol, which is found even in some beauty products marketed as “clean” and “non toxic,” was originally used as a mass fish anesthetic. Yikes.
How to choose a mineral sunscreen
We’ve talked about the ingredients, but what else do you need to know about choosing a sunscreen?
The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) recommends that your sunscreen should:
- provide broad-spectrum protection, which means it protects against both UVA and UVB rays;
- be SPF 30 or higher; and
- provide water resistance.
Why should you care about broad spectrum protection? First, both UVA and UVB rays cause cancer. Second, UVA rays are the “aging” rays (A for aging) that cause wrinkles and age spots, while UVB rays are the ones that cause sunburn (B for burn). So you want to make sure you protect against both types of ultraviolet rays.
SPF (Sun Protection Factor)
A sunscreen with an SPF of 30 blocks 97 percent of the sun’s UVB rays, which cause sunburn. SPF does not measure how well the sunscreen will protect against UVA rays, which are the ones that cause aging.
Using a higher SPF does not offer significantly greater protection against UVB rays. It also may cause a false sense of protection, which means that people stay in the sun longer than they should or don’t reapply sunscreen as often.
All sunscreens making SPF claims must undergo FDA-approved testing.
There’s no such thing as “waterproof” sunscreen, which is why they’re labeled as “water resistant” for a specified period of time. Eventually, all sunscreens will wash off when swimming or sweating. The FDA requires that sunscreens labeled “water resistant” are tested and remain effective for 40 or 80 minutes when swimming or sweating (must be clearly labeled).
My recommendation is to purchase sunscreens that are water resistant for 80 minutes so you don’t have to reapply as often at the beach or pool.
IMPORTANT: Be careful with face or “everyday” mineral sunscreens because many of the ones I reviewed were NOT water resistant. They work under makeup or on their own if you’re not in the water or sweating, but you’ll need something different for the pool, beach, or sweaty days. These types of SPFs are often combined with a moisturizer or primer. Water-resistant SPFs are often labeled “active” or “sport,” but make sure you read each label to be sure.
what’s the best mineral sunscreen spray?
While the FDA hasn’t said they’re unsafe for use, it does say that spray sunscreens raise potential questions of both safety and effectiveness. Powder sunscreens also have safety concerns. This applies to both mineral and chemical sunscreens.
As I wrote about earlier, while zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are safe when applied in creams and lotions to the skin, there are concerns about respiratory damage if inhaled in spray or powder form. The EWG strongly discourages the use of loose powder makeup or spray sunscreens using titanium dioxide or zinc oxide of any particle size.
I know parents like spray sunscreens for the ease of use with little kids, and I’m tempted to use them myself. But I’ve always wondered about how much actually lands on the skin, as well as how much goes into the lungs. I’ve watched people apply it at the beach, and most of it looks to be carried away in the wind (or into my lungs if I’m downwind)!
Spray sunscreen also has the potential to be flammable when exposed to heat or flame before it has completely dried. And when are most people using sunscreen? They’re applying it during the summer in very hot, outdoor environments when they’re grilling, having bonfires, and smoking.
The best mineral sunscreen spray is the one you don’t use. The same goes for mineral sunscreen powder. Just don’t use either one.
How do you apply sunblock?
Most people don’t apply enough sunscreen based on what’s recommended by the FDA and AAD. These organizations state that the average-sized adult needs approximately 1 ounce (enough to fill a shot glass) to cover his or her full body. You can obviously use less if you wear protective clothing that covers your skin.
Follow the instructions on the bottle, paying close attention to how long the sunscreen is water resistant.
- at least 15 minutes before sun exposure;
- after swimming or sweating, according to the time specified on the product’s label;
- immediately after towel drying; and
- at least every two hours.
So let’s recap, because I know you’re still wondering if you can get away with doing less than what’s recommended. No, mineral sunscreen does not last all day so yes, you really need to reapply sunscreen every two hours. And yes, you need to wait 15 minutes after applying sunscreen before going out into the sun.
Don’t forget to apply to the tops of your feet, your neck, your ears, your hands, and the top of your head!
Excessive heat and direct sun can reduce the effectiveness of sunscreen. So don’t leave it in your car or on top of your bag while you’re at the pool. Keep your sunscreen in the shade or in coolers while out in the sun for long periods of time.
The FDA requires that all sunscreens have an expiration date or remain stable for at least three years. So if a sunscreen doesn’t have a date, consider it expired three years after purchase. (Tip: Write the date of purchase on the bottle so you don’t forget.)
Another thing to know: mineral sunscreens will leave behind a white cast from the zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. This is obviously more of an issue for people with darker skin tones; using a tinted SPF can help. Some products use something called clear zinc and apply more clear than others, but I’ve read that the application on some of these tends to be greasy.
Other ways to protect your skin
In addition to wearing mineral sunscreen, other ways you can protect your skin while outside are:
- Seek shade when appropriate.
- Do not stay in the sun for extended periods of time.
- Wear protective clothing, hats, and sunglasses.
- Be careful near water, snow, and sand because they reflect the rays of the sun.
I wear rash guards when I’m at the pool and at the beach because it’s hard to put sunscreen on my own back if Ryan’s not around. I also put my kids in rash guards and swim hats as much as possible, although Olivia’s starting to give me some push back because she wants to wear cute swimsuits.
I’ve never liked wearing hats, but I’ve burned my scalp more times than I can count in my lifetime so I’ve made myself a hat person.
Do you have little babies at home? The AAD recommends that parents not expose children younger than six months to the sun’s rays.
I also use the UV Index on my iPhone’s Weather app to check how strong the sun’s rays are. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has a scale that lets you know how much UV exposure you’re getting. It lists 0-2 as low, 3-7 as moderate to high, and 8+ as very high to extreme. I try to keep my family out of the sun during the very high to extreme exposure window, which is usually late morning through mid-afternoon. And if we are out during that time, we wear sunscreen and hats, and we take breaks in the shade.
Which mineral sunscreen is best?
It’s hard to find the best mineral sunscreen because reviews on a lot of products are mixed.
Some people say one product is the best they’ve tried, while others say they burned even when using it as directed. Some say a product goes on clear and non-greasy; others say the product left grease marks everywhere and stained clothing.
You’ll probably need to try several sunscreens to find one that you like. I recommend not using sunscreen for the first time when you’ll be out in the sun all day. Test it out for an hour or two before slathering it on your whole family for a long beach day.
You can also review recommended sunscreens in the Environmental Working Group’s 2020 Guide to Sunscreens. I like to start here and then look at reviews on Amazon or on the company’s website.
I currently use Thinkbaby on my kids and my body, as well as on my face at the beach or pool. I sometimes use Suntegrity as an everyday face SPF, but it’s oily so it’s better for dry skin. After doing research for this blog post, I have a few more sunscreens that I want to try! Below I’ve listed my favorites and and the ones I want to try.
Sunscreens I currently use
Thinkbaby Safe Sunscreen SPF 50+ (Kids and Body)
I’ve used this one for several years and keep re-ordering it! It is scented, but I don’t mind It and I’m sensitive to smells. Thinkbaby is a little more budget friendly than some other mineral options. You can also try Thinksport; I don’t think there’s much of a difference.
Suntegrity 5 in 1 Natural Moisturizing Tinted Face Sunscreen (Face – Tinted)
I’ve also used this one for a while. It’s a little dewy for my oily skin, so I follow up with a setting powder. This is an everyday face SPF and it is NOT water resistant, so I use the Thinkbaby on my face when I’m out at the beach.
Sunscreens I want to try
Thinkbaby Baby and Face Sunscreen Stick SPF 30+ (Kids, Body, and Face)
This is definitely on my list after looking at the ingredients and the EWG’s rating.
This is a brand with really clean ingredients and high standards. Like most mineral sunscreens, many of the reviews do state that it’s thick and a bit hard to rub in. Raw Elements was founded by an ocean lifeguard and I love that it’s local to me here in Orange County, Calif., since it’s based in Huntington Beach.
Raw Elements Tinted Daily Face Moisturizer Pump SPF 30 (Face – Tinted)
Raw Elements Face + Body SPF 30 in plastic-free tin (Kids, Body, and Face)
Raw Elements Daily Lifestyle Pump SPF 30 (Kids, Body, and Face)
Love Sun Body (Face)
I have my eye on Love Sun Body’s Moisturizing Mineral Face Sunscreen SPF 30. This is a non-tinted facial sunscreen. It’s a whopping 3.38 oz., while many other clean mineral sunscreens for the face are just 1 oz.
Badger Clear Zinc Oxide Sunscreen
Badger is a brand highly recommended by many natural beauty bloggers. I tried one product several years ago and hated it because it was super thick and really hard to rub in. (I can’t remember which one – sorry!) Badger has since released sunscreens using clear zinc oxide, which is supposed to be easier to apply and doesn’t leave a white cast. Their ingredients are top notch, so I’m willing to give them another shot. Some of the reviews of the clear zinc say it’s greasy and stains clothes, so use with caution. If you purchase directly from the company’s website, Badger accepts returns if you’re not satisfied.
Badger Clear Zinc Oxide Sport Sunscreen SPF 35 (Kids and Body)
Clear Sport Sunscreen Cream in a Tin – SPF 40 (Kids and Body)
TL;DR (TOO LONG; DIDN’T READ)
- The only active sunscreen ingredients you should use are non-nano zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. Non-nano zinc oxide is the best option because it provides broad spectrum coverage. Avoid toxic inactive ingredients.
- Choose a sunscreen with broad spectrum protection and an SPF of at least 30.
- Do not use spray or aerosol sunscreens.
- Apply sunscreen at least 15 minutes before sun exposure, after swimming or sweating according to the time specified on the product’s label, immediately after towel drying, and at least every two hours.
- Wear protective clothing and seek shade when appropriate.
What’s your favorite mineral sunscreen? Let me know in the comments!