When it comes to mineral sunscreen versus chemical sunscreen, the winner is clear in my book. It’s not always easy to explain in a clear, concise way to everyone though. The other day I realized there’s a perfect analogy with landscaping.
You see, I’m always frustrated when we have to repurchase and re-spread mulch every year (or every other year if we don’t mind it looking subpar for a season). Mulch is expensive, and it’s a big job every time even though it looks really nice when you’re finished.
Mulch decomposes over time of course and begins to turn into dirt. So after about two years, you’re actually starting to grow more weeds in the mulch itself than if you had some other kind of coverage.
This year I put my foot down and said, “That’s it! We’re getting landscaping rock everywhere these weeds are growing. This is driving me nuts!”
I swallowed my words a bit after calling around to price landscaping rock. If I thought mulch was expensive at $50-100 a year, landscaping rock is much, much worse at more like $700 for what we’re looking at.
However, I keep telling myself I will only have to do this once.
The rocks won’t decompose, won’t turn into dirt, won’t start growing weeds themselves. And as long as we can get our five-year-old to stop knocking on neighbors’ doors and trying to sell our rocks (true story), they really won’t go anywhere at a significant rate.
Sure, some of them will start to sink into the earth and get covered a bit, but it takes a lot longer – they’re made of rock! Nothing is really going to break them down.
This is very similar to zinc oxide and titanium dioxide mineral-based sunscreens.
The active ingredient is a mineral which we can think of, for all intents and purposes, like a rock. It’s not going to degrade in the sun or sink into your skin and disappear or dissipate. It’s just going to sit there until you wash it off or rub it off with a towel, or your hands as you wipe your face.
My parents have even been telling me lately that with just one application of their favorite Raw Elements sunscreen, they will swim and walk and enjoy the sunshine all day in Florida without any sunburns. You can use the code KS10 to save 10% on Raw Elements!
That would not be possible with chemical sunscreen. Like mulch, things happen to chemical sunscreen when it’s exposed to sunshine. The active ingredients undergo chemical reactions in the sun and actually are “used up.”
After about two hours, they are degraded so much that they’re not protecting you from the UVA or UVB rays of the sun. That’s why you have to reapply chemical sunscreen every two hours, just like you have to repurchase and re-spread landscape mulch every two years.
Side note: Yes, all your mineral sunscreen bottles will have the same required application instructions, but it’s just a leftover from the chemical sunscreen needs. The FDA hasn’t differentiated between the two when it comes to how you’re supposed to use them.
Why is Mineral Sunscreen Better than Chemical Sunscreen?
As I’ve just demonstrated, because of the way chemical and mineral sunscreens work, mineral sunscreen lasts a lot longer on your skin.
This ends up being not just a cosmetic benefit, but more importantly, zinc oxide-based sunscreens are also much safer for human health and safety, are fully broad spectrum all by themselves, AND are safe for marine life.
I feel this is a really big deal for all humans to pay attention to even if you don’t live near an ocean. Thirty-seven Midwestern states run off into the Gulf of Mexico, and what washes off everyone’s bodies into lakes, pools, and down shower drains really is affecting our entire ecosystem.
I’ve committed over a decade to being a total sunscreen nerd – testing over 120 different formulas on my family of six. Every time we are out in the sun, especially at a beach or with many hours of exposure, we put one brand on one side and one brand on the other side of our body.
Not only do we know what works, but we’re very picky about clean ingredients and we know what goes on smoothly and won’t make you look like Casper the Friendly Ghost or just be frustrating because it completely separates after a winter in the cupboard.
You could ask your dermatologist for recommendations about what to put on your skin, but I guarantee they haven’t tried very many.
That would be kind of like asking your doctor to teach you how to cook healthy food and what vegetables store the longest or will freeze well. Doctors have a superficial knowledge of nutrition at best and certainly don’t know everything there is to know about actually implementing good nutrition in a kitchen.
That’s where you need someone whose feet are on the ground and whose face is in the sun. My family will do that for you with our comprehensive natural mineral sunscreen review.
We are SO picky, in fact, that less than 10% of those we’ve tried are in our very top-recommended tier. And if my little landscaping analogy hasn’t convinced you, let’s talk about some other reasons mineral sunscreen is a far better choice for your family and the earth than chemical sunscreen.
RELATED: Best mineral sunscreens for babies.
How Does Mineral Sunscreen Work?
The beauty of mineral sunscreen being basically like a rock is that it sits on the surface of your skin. If you’ve been in the natural health world very long at all, you’ve heard people say that your skin is your largest organ, so everything that absorbs into it is very important to your health.
Zinc oxide (as long as the formula doesn’t use nanoparticles less than 100 nanometers big) doesn’t even absorb into your skin. It simply sits on the surface.
Some sources say that zinc oxide sunscreens work because they scatter and reflect the rays of the sun. Other experts describe it more as an absorbing quality, but either way, no chemical or organic reaction is required.
The zinc remains ZnO as a chemical formula and doesn’t change in any way. Titanium dioxide is the same, but I always lean toward 100% zinc oxide formulas because of the potential hazard of titanium dioxide itself being a heavy metal.
How Does Chemical Sunscreen Work?
In contrast, the chemical sunscreen ingredients all need to undergo a chemical reaction with the sun in order to protect you from UVA or UVB rays. (Notice I did not say and, as in both kinds of rays – you’ll see why in a minute.)
If you remember high school science class, a chemical reaction has byproducts, and when it comes to chemical sunscreen ingredients, those byproducts create free radicals.
Free radicals cause oxidative stress on or under your skin. This is a big problem because, of course, oxidation is often a driver for cancer cells. It’s what we consume antioxidants like blueberries to try to prevent.
It’s quite ironic that something you are slathering on your skin to prevent skin cancer may, in fact, have a positive effect on cancer development.
The other problem with this chemical reaction is that it alters the chemical active ingredients in your sunscreen. They are “used up” and after about two hours of reacting with the sun, so they’re not really protecting you anymore.
Some sources also say that they may be sinking deeper and deeper into your skin, where the free radicals being released are ever more harmful to your body.
That is the dual reason why you must reapply after two hours when using a chemical sunscreen. First, because it’s not protecting you anymore, and second, because you need to stop the continued chemical reaction with your first application because it’s possibly so deep in your skin that it’s causing more problems than if you hadn’t worn sunscreen at all.
So if you’re using a chemical sunscreen, you better get that second layer on every single time you apply the first layer as long as you are still in the sun. Otherwise, you’re signing yourself up for trouble.
Do Mineral Sunscreens Last Longer? Even All Day?
Isn’t that great news? Since mineral sunscreens don’t require a chemical reaction, they don’t degrade. This means they last and are effective so much longer than chemical sunscreens. You should still reapply when swimming or sweating, but you don’t have to reapply mineral sunscreen nearly as often as chemical.
We’ve even had experiences where we can see the sunscreen on our bodies visually the next day as long as we haven’t showered and rubbed it all off. I’ve also done some side by side testing where we allowed sunscreen on one half of the body to be literally from the day before and applied a new coat the second day.
The new coat does work a little bit better because certainly clothing and sheets at night are physically rubbing off the zinc oxide active ingredient, but it’s still there and it still works.
Sometimes it’s almost difficult to get the zinc oxide-based sunscreen fully off in the shower, which is not something to be annoyed by but something to be grateful about. That is still protecting you if you choose to head back out into the sun.
Does Natural Sunscreen Expire?
Because the minerals, zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, don’t degrade and don’t undergo any chemical reactions, the same really applies to being inside the tube. The minerals do not degrade and do not expire.
Yes, natural sunscreens still have expiration dates. Part of that is because they’re stuck in the same FDA regulatory system as chemical sunscreens, and we know that chemical sunscreens can lose potency over time.
If you were to use an expired natural mineral sunscreen, I feel quite certain that your protection from the sun would still have the same SPF quality as it did the day it hit the shelves.
The only risk with mineral sunscreen expiring is if the oils used in the formula were to get too old and go rancid. Because our skin IS in fact our largest organ, we probably don’t want rancid oils going on our bodies because of the oxidation factor.
However, in my opinion, far less risk to use an expired mineral sunscreen even with rancid oils, than an expired chemical sunscreen that won’t protect you at all (or for that matter, an active chemical sunscreen!).
Also, some natural sunscreens use very long-lasting oils, like coconut oil, that aren’t very likely to go rancid. Your nose will know if you need to throw away a tube.
Risks of Chemical Sunscreen
Here’s where my decision is truly made.
I want grandchildren, and I’ll do everything I can do to keep my own children’s hormonal systems in balance. I know that they will be exposed to all sorts of endocrine disruptors in their lives because of our environment. So, we do our best not to intentionally put them on or in our bodies.
That’s the first big problem with chemical sunscreens. Many of them are estrogen-mimicking.
So much so that it may be like a daily dose of hormone replacement therapy every time you apply a chemical sunscreen to all of your skin at once. Read more about the estrogenic effects of chemical sunscreens here.
Problem #2: We’ve already discussed how chemical sunscreens may actually cause the cancers that they are purported to prevent. And the statistics, unfortunately, back this up.
Skin cancer gets the trophy for more diagnoses than all other cancers combined! Melanoma has increased 81% since 19731,1 5 million of us per year,2 and other skin cancers are up 71% since 1994.3
In that time, the use of sunscreen in America (and SPF numbers) have also increased, about 2.6%/year from 2005-2010 alone.4 Correlation is not causation, but there’s also not a lot of good research that shows that sunscreen protects from skin cancer – the studies conflict.
An even more recent study (2020) showed that multiple chemical sunscreen ingredients absorbed into the bloodstream at levels higher than the FDA threshold!5
Finally, chemical sunscreen may not even be protecting you from ALL the dangerous ultraviolet rays of the sun, as you would expect. In fact, before 2011 the FDA didn’t even require that sunscreens protect from UVA rays, the aging rays of the sun, which also cause cancer.
There aren’t ANY chemical sunscreen ingredients that protect from both UVA and UVB. So it’s up to sunscreen formulators to hit just the right balance so that you are equally protected.
If they don’t hit it, you might be protected from sunburn more than from the aging rays of the sun, and this is risky because if you don’t burn, you feel like you’ve been fully protected from skin cancer as well, which may not be true.
This is particularly dangerous when it comes to SPF numbers because SPF is only a rating of UVB protection.
It’s possible to have a very high SPF number and great UVB protection, which of course will still degrade in the sun and stop working, but have far less UVA protection, which means you’re still putting yourself at risk of cancer and wrinkles.
The only chemical sunscreen active ingredient that protects from UVA rays is avobenzone. I never even saw this ingredient when I first started learning and testing in 2010, because it was so rarely used.
Now it’s in literally every chemical sunscreen I see and guess what? Avobenzone makes a mess of your laundry, and who knows what it’s doing to your health. You don’t want to be part of the guinea pig experiment on its widespread use!
Too much to look through right now?
I organized alllll the sunscreens we reviewed in their recommendation category – one page at-a-glance to find out what is safe to buy AND works! Print it or save to your phone for reference!
The guide also includes answers to questions people ask me all the time:
- Which brand rubs in the clearest?
- What’s the best for all day outdoor sports?
- How do I save money on natural sunscreens?
- What looks good on ladies’ faces?
- Is there an option that is FAST to apply to wiggly kids?
I’ll send a copy to your email so you can see it right away and find it again later!
Zinc Oxide is Fully Broad Spectrum
Of all of the FDA approved sunscreen active ingredients, only zinc oxide protects fully from UVA and UVB rays at the same time. Titanium Dioxide also protects from both but its balance is not quite as even as zinc oxide, which is another reason that I recommend zinc oxide only.
If the good Lord has provided us with a mineral that can truly protect us from both sunburn and aging, and cancer to boot, why not just let Him be in charge of getting the balance right?
What Kind of Sunscreen is Reef-Safe?
There’s been an alarming trend in the last decade or two. The coral reefs are dying off or becoming bleached (which is basically the coral reef equivalent of a deathbed) at astronomical rates.
In fact, half of the Great Barrier Reef has disappeared, and it’s predicted that by 2050, we could be down 90%. Coral reefs are vital to our world’s marine ecosystem because so many varieties of fish and other marine life call coral reefs home.
A 2015 study by Dr. Craig Downs showed that oxybenzone the most common chemical sunscreen ingredient, definitely causes coral bleaching.6
There are other problems that humans are causing that are contributing to the decline of coral reefs, but we know that between 4,000 and 6,000 tons of sunscreen going into the ocean every single year is a huge factor.7 Since it’s so easy to switch to zinc oxide-based sunscreens that are completely reef-safe, it only makes sense to do so.
Please be careful as you read labels because unfortunately, big brands have only removed oxybenzone and octinoxate and are now putting reef-friendly on the front of their bottles and tubes. This is not true!
Choose only a zinc oxide sunscreen with no other active ingredients and then you’ll be sure to actually be protecting the coral reefs, whether you are snorkeling in a beautiful Caribbean ocean or hopping in your backyard pool deep in the Midwest.
READ MORE: Reef-Safe Sunscreen
Do Mineral Sunscreens Stain Clothing?
I don’t want to make it sound like switching to natural mineral sunscreen is absolutely the easiest choice in the world.
It’s true that it can be a little harder to rub in, and it takes more of a special technique.
We call it the dabba dabba technique: just dab little dots down your arm or on your face and try to rub those in instead of one big glop in the palm of your hand.
In my opinion, switching to mineral sunscreen and potentially taking 60 seconds more to apply is well worth the protection for your family’s health, my family’s health, and coral reefs everywhere.
People do have problems with some mineral sunscreens staining clothing. The zinc oxide can be so white that particularly on darker colors, getting a splash here and there just doesn’t come out in the wash.
Certain fabrics tend to bounce back better, but it’s definitely possible to cause white stains on your dark bathing suits.
This problem used to be specific to mineral sunscreens, but now that the FDA has figured out the whole UVA/UVB balance, all of your chemical formulations will include avobenzone, which is a huge laundry problem as mentioned above.
So really, you can choose chemical sunscreen and have invisible stains that become permanent the moment you unknowingly put them through the dryer, or you can choose the much safer, better choice of zinc oxide natural sunscreens and just be a little careful when you’re applying along the edges of your dark clothing.
If you do get zinc oxide sunscreen on your clothes, you can see the problem right away, and often a good soap and scrub and stain pretreat will do the job. For adult faces, I prefer a tinted mineral sunscreen, and just like any foundation, that can definitely stain clothing. But once it’s all rubbed in, you should be alright.
Does Mineral Sunscreen Cause Breakouts from Clogged Pores?
Anytime you’re putting something on your face, there’s a concern with acne, zits, and breakouts, right?
What you want to look for are non-comedogenic oils that won’t clog pores. If your face is acne-prone, there are plenty of zinc-oxide based SPF moisturizers, sunscreens, and foundations that will treat you well.
You may not have luck with every sunscreen out there and it’s possible you can choose the most frugal natural sunscreens, but it still won’t cost that much if you simply have separate facial sunscreens and don’t use the expensive stuff all over your body.
Bottom Line: Choose Mineral Sunscreen for the Oceans and Your Family
Why is mineral sunscreen safer than chemical sunscreens? Let’s recap:
- Mineral sunscreen sits on the surface of your skin and doesn’t absorb, so no potential health hazards in the bloodstream.
- Mineral sunscreen doesn’t degrade in the sun, so it lasts longer and doesn’t need to be reapplied as often.
- Chemical sunscreen degrades AND releases free radicals, which may contribute to cancer.
- Chemical sunscreen causes estrogenic effects on humans and other animals in the ecosystem.
- Mineral sunscreen active ingredients won’t expire.
- Mineral sunscreen is fully broad spectrum without having to do a balancing act or use avobenzone, which stains clothing.
- Mineral sunscreen is reef-safe.
- You can find mineral sunscreens that won’t clog pores and cause breakouts.
I hope the answer is clear!
If you’re a video person, watch this (and share with friends on Facebook right here):
- Planta, M.B. (November 2011). Sunscreen and Melanoma: Is Our Prevention Message Correct? The Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine, 24(6), 735-739. Retrieved from https://www.jabfm.org/content/24/6/735
- Centers for Disease Control. (2018). Sunscreen Use Among Adults in the United States. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/cancer/dcpc/research/articles/sunscreen-use.htm
- Skin Cancer Facts & Statistics. (2020). Retrieved from https://www.skincancer.org/skin-cancer-information/skin-cancer-facts/
- Environmental Working Group. (n.d.). Skin Cancer and Other Damage. Retrieved from https://www.ewg.org/sunscreen/report/skin-cancer-on-the-rise/
- Matta, M.K., Florian, J., Zusterzeel, R., et al. Effect of Sunscreen Application on Plasma Concentration of Sunscreen Active Ingredients: A Randomized Clinical Trial. JAMA, 323(3), 256–267. Retrieved from https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/article-abstract/2759002
- Downs, C., Winter, E., Segal, R., Fauth, J., Knutson, S., Bronstein, O., et al. (2015). Toxicopathological Effects of the Sunscreen UV Filter, Oxybenzone (Benzophenone-3), on Coral Planulae and Cultured Primary Cells and Its Environmental Contamination in Hawaii and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Archives of environmental contamination and toxicology. 70. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/283077578
- National Park Service. (n.d.). Protect Yourself, Protect The Reef! Retrieved from https://cdhc.noaa.gov/_docs/Site%20Bulletin_Sunscreen_final.pdf