Ask Curology: mineral vs. chemical sunscreen

Chemica, physical, or mineral? Sunscreen ingredients, explained.

Nicole Hangsterfer Avatar

Nicole Hangsterfer, PA-C
Aug 13, 2021 · 5 min read

Chemical vs. Mineral Sunscreen
We’re here to share what we know — but don’t take it as medical advice. Talk to your medical provider if you have questions.

Welcome to Ask Curology, penned by one of our in-house medical providers in response to your questions about all things skincare. This week: chemical or mineral sunscreen—what’s the best for your skin? If you’re acne-prone or have sensitive skin, understanding the different types of sunscreen ingredients is crucial. Our in-house skincare expert explains it all in response to a rash letter. 

• • •

Dear Curology, 

Help! Everyone says wearing sunscreen is the #1 skincare tip, but I hate how it feels on my skin. I’m acne-prone and have sensitive skin.The last time I used my friend’s expensive sun oil with SPF, I got the worst rash. How am I supposed to believe sunscreen is helping my skin when wearing it is so uncomfortable?! 

I know I’d like the way my skin looks more if I practiced sun protection, but I just can’t seem to find the right product. What sunscreen ingredients should I avoid?

Help,

Sun Burnt Face

• • •

Dear SPF, 

Happy to help! I’ll get into the nitty-gritty of sunscreen ingredients in a moment—first, let’s explain the difference between chemical and mineral (or physical) sunscreens. 

Chemical or mineral sunscreen: which one is better?

The main difference between chemical and mineral sunscreen is the active ingredients that provide sun protection. Chemical and physical are two broad categories for sunscreen ingredients: physical sunscreens’ active ingredients are derived from minerals, while chemical sunscreens’ active ingredients are synthetic compounds. There are also hybrid sunscreens that contain both chemical and physical ingredients. 

If your skin tolerates chemical sunscreens’ active ingredients, you may prefer lotions and moisturizers with those ingredients for daily sun protection. However, many people choose mineral sunscreens if they suspect they have an allergy or sensitivity to certain ingredients in chemical sunscreens. Since you’re acne-prone and have sensitive skin, it’s worth it to decipher your product’s ingredient list before investing in a purchase.

I’ll recommend some of our favorite sunscreens for acne-prone skin in a moment. First, let me give some more information about the differences between chemical and mineral sunscreens. 

Mineral vs. Chemical Sunscreen

What is chemical sunscreen?

The active ingredients in chemical sunscreens are synthetic compounds that filter and absorb UV light. There are quite a few different chemical sunscreen active ingredients, including: 

  • Avobenzone

  • Octisalate

  • Oxybenzone 

  • Homosalate 

Chemical sunscreens tend to absorb easily into the skin, making them a popular addition to skincare products with SPF. They’re also less likely to leave a white cast than physical sunscreens. Because of their versatility, you’ll find chemical sunscreens in a variety of skincare products for each skin type. 

That said, chemical sunscreens may cause irritation or allergic reactions in certain individuals. If you have allergy-prone or sensitive skin, it may be easier to stick to mineral sunscreens. 

Chemical sunscreens we recommend

What is mineral sunscreen?

A mineral (or physical) sunscreen creates a physical barrier over your skin that bounces back the sun’s UV rays. Titanium dioxide and zinc oxide are the two minerals used in physical sunscreens. Recorded use of zinc oxide in topical treatments dates back to ancient India, while titanium dioxide has been commercially used as a pigment since the early 1900s. 

Because chemical sunscreen allergies and sensitivities are fairly common, people with sensitive skin typically prefer mineral sunscreens. The drawback? Physical sunscreens are notorious for leaving a white cast, and many find titanium dioxide and zinc oxide to be thick, pasty, and hard to rub into the skin. That said, micronization (with smaller particle size) and tints do help!

Mineral sunscreens we recommend

Hybrid sunscreens (when chemical and physical combine) 

Because both types of sunscreen ingredients have their pros and cons, it’s common that facial sunscreens will include a mix of chemical and mineral sunscreen ingredients. Check the active ingredients list on your bottle to make sure you’re getting the kind you want, and be sure to avoid any chemical sunscreen ingredients you may be sensitive to. 

Hybrid sunscreens we recommend

Mineral or chemical sunscreen: which one is best for you?

Because you mention having acne and sensitive skin, I’d recommend you try physical sunscreens before chemical sunscreens. Certain physical sunscreen ingredients such as zinc oxide may even help soothe the skin! Because we know allergies to the active ingredients in chemical sunscreens can happen, you’ll likely want to stick to sunscreen formulas with titanium dioxide and/or zinc oxide as their active ingredients. 

Sunscreen ingredients to avoid

Of course, it doesn’t matter if your sunscreen is chemical or physical if it has ingredients that can trigger breakouts and irritation. That’s a hard pass! As a rule of thumb, avoid alcohol in skincare products (specifically alcohol denat., aka denatured alcohol—other versions, such as coconut alcohol and cetearyl alcohol, are actually fine to use). And be on the lookout for potentially pore-clogging ingredients, such as coconut oil, octyl stearate, and isopropyl palmitate.

How to apply sunscreen

You should give your sunscreen time to absorb before heading outside—check your product’s label for the recommended amount of time! 

Besides waiting 20 minutes or so for your product to absorb, it’s crucial to apply enough sunscreen. I recommend using the two-finger rule: squirt some SPF down the length of two fingers and apply it to one section of your body (like your face and neck—you’ll need to repeat this step ten more times before your entire self is covered). And you’ll want to make sure to re-apply your sunscreen as needed (once for about every 2 hours of sun exposure). 

So that’s what I know as your friendly local expert. If you have any questions, feel free to reach out to your Curology provider. If you’re not already a Curology member, you can get your first month of custom prescription skincare for free (just pay $4.95 to cover shipping and handling). Until next time…!

All my best,

Nicole Hangsterfer, PA-C

• • •

We’re here to tell you what we know. That’s why our information is evidence-based and fact-checked by medical experts. Still, everyone’s skin is unique—the best way to get advice is to talk to your healthcare provider.

Empowering you with knowledge is our top priority. Our reviews of other brands’ products in this post are not paid endorsements—but they do meet our medically fact-checked standards for ingredients (at the time of publication).

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Nicole Hangsterfer Avatar

Nicole Hangsterfer, PA-C

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