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mineral or synthetic sunscreen—which is best?

Before we answer that question, let’s look at the two types of sunscreens available.

Mineral Sunscreens

Mineral sunscreens contain natural, inert ingredients such as titanium dioxide and zinc oxide. These active ingredients work by sitting on top of the skin and deflect and scatter damaging UV rays away from the skin. The UV rays are bounced off your skin just like balls off a hard surface. These are often referred to as “physical” blockers.

Pros:

  • Protects against both UVA (aging) and UVB (burning) rays and is naturally broad spectrum
  • Less likely to cause a stinging irritation on the skin, making it far better for those with sensitive skin and rosacea
  • Less likely to clog pores, making it ideal for blemish-prone skin types
  • More stable than synthetic sunscreens, both in the bottle and on your skin.
  • Not absorbed by the body; they stay put on your skin where applied and deflect the heat and energy given off by the sun away from your skin

Cons:

  • May need more frequent re-application since it can rub off more easily when sweating or swimming
  • Some formulas have less appealing textures and skin feel (due to the high percentage of minerals needed to achieve SPF 30+), and can leave a whitish cast on the skin, which is not ideal for darker skin tones
  • To give the best protection, it must be applied generously and uniformly on the skin since UV light can squeeze between the mineral particles sitting on the skin and cause sun damage

Synthetic Sunscreens

There are more than 30 synthetic sunscreen compounds; the most commonly used are oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate, and octinoxate. These work by creating a chemical reaction on your skin that changes UV rays into heat, which is then released from the skin.  Synthetic sunscreens are often referred to as “absorbers” or “chemical sunscreens”.  However, the term “chemical” is misleading because all ingredients used in skincare products are by definition chemicals, including water.

Pros:

  • Formulas tend to be more appealing in texture and skin feel, making them more wearable for daily use
  • Less product is needed to protect the skin since there is no risk of spaces between the sunscreen molecules after application
  • Better suited for water-resistant formulas

Cons:

  • More chance of stinging and irritation due to the multiple ingredients (especially avobenzone) combined in order to achieve broad spectrum UVA and UVB protection
  • Increased chance of redness for those with rosacea because it changes UV rays into heat which can exacerbate flushing
  • The higher the SPF (50+), the higher the risk of irritation for sensitive skin
  • May clog pores
  • Oxybenzone may be disruptive to hormones. However, experts agree that more studies are needed.

So, which is best?  It is difficult to say which one is truly the best for your skin since not all formulas are created equal. Dermatologists tend to recommend mineral-based sunscreens as they are less irritating, more stable and naturally provide broad-spectrum protection. And recent advances in ingredient manufacturing and formulation technology mean that it is now possible to make products with micro fine, clear titanium dioxide and zinc oxide that are far more appealing for daily wear than first generation mineral sunscreens—no more white cast.  However, the best sunscreen is one that you love and that you will wear every single day, rain or shine. No excuses!