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Screening zinc oxide sunscreen products: A guide to choosing the best sun protection

What gives zinc oxide sunscreens an edge over other options? Curology’s experts explain.

Curology Team Avatar
by Curology Team
Updated on Aug 29, 2023 • 12 min read
Medically reviewed by Donna McIntyre, NP-BC
Applying Zinc Oxide Sunscreen
Curology Team Avatar
by Curology Team
Updated on Aug 29, 2023 • 12 min read
Medically reviewed by Donna McIntyre, NP-BC
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.

Sunscreen protects you from premature skin aging and skin cancer. So like brushing your teeth, it’s an important health measure that deserves a place in your daily routine. But with so many different formulations to choose from, how do you pick the right one for your skin? 

If you’re interested in mineral sunscreen over chemical, a zinc oxide formula might be right for you. Here, Curology’s team of dermatology experts explain what zinc oxide sunscreens are, how they work, and how they compare with other sunscreen products. They also give a rundown of the top qualities a good sunscreen must have.

What is a zinc oxide sunscreen, and how does it work?

The sun powers many processes essential to life. However, it also emits different radiation types that can damage the skin:¹

  • Ultraviolet-A (UVA), which primarily causes skin photoaging.

  • Ultraviolet-B (UVB), the chief cause of sunburns and skin cancer. The effects of UVA and UVB overlap.

  • Infrared (IR), which plays a role in premature skin aging.

  • Visible light (VL), particularly blue light, which may be both helpful and harmful to the skin depending on intensity, though more research is needed.²

Sunscreens contain substances that shield the skin from harmful radiation. Many sunscreens have the mineral zinc oxide as its main active ingredient, which protects from UVA and UVB by scattering the rays.³ One study has also shown that zinc oxide’s sun-protecting action comes from its ability to absorb UV light.⁴

Many new formulations contain zinc oxide nanoparticles, which are smaller than that which you can see under a conventional microscope. Sunscreen formulated with zinc nanoparticles may also be more pleasant to apply⁵. Based on currently available data, there are no human health concerns using zinc oxide in sunscreen.⁶

Recent evidence shows that broad spectrum sunscreens also offer some reflection of IR exposure.⁷ However, zinc oxide can’t filter out high-energy visible (HEV) light, which includes blue light. HEV exposure has increased with use of electronics such as smartphones. Although zinc oxide can’t filter out HEV, it has been found that including iron oxides in sunscreen can be an effective way to protect against blue light exposure.⁸

Is zinc oxide sunscreen safe?

Zinc oxide is one of only two sunscreen active ingredients classified by the FDA as GRASE, or “generally recognized as safe and effective.” The other is titanium dioxide—also a mineral. Formulations with up to 25% zinc oxide are considered safe.⁹

There’s no strong evidence to date linking regular zinc oxide sunscreen application to serious adverse events in humans.¹⁰ But some commercial products have additives that may cause an allergic reaction.¹¹ To be safe, apply a small sample of sunscreen on the skin to observe for any adverse reactions. If you experience any unexpected reactions with sunscreen, consult a medical professional. 

Is zinc oxide sunscreen safe for babies?

Sunscreen use recommendations in children are age-based. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not recommend using sunscreens on infants younger than 6 months as they are more prone to side effects like rashes from applying sunscreen. So, the best sun protection for these babies is to keep them out of the sun.¹² The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) notes, however, that if shade and adequate clothing is not available, a small amount of broad-spectrum water-resistant sunscreen with an SPF of a minimum of 30 may be applied.¹³ Physical protection of a baby’s skin is preferred and includes comfortable long-sleeved clothing and wide-brimmed hats.¹⁴

For children 6 months or older, the AAD recommends using a sunscreen with zinc oxide or titanium dioxide and applying it according to product label instructions.¹⁵

Always defer to your child’s pediatrician regarding sunscreen use and the best way to protect their skin from the sun.

Is zinc oxide sunscreen safe for pregnancy?

The AAD currently doesn’t have sunscreen use recommendations for pregnant women.¹⁶ Pregnant women may consider zinc oxide formulas, which have many advantages over other sun protection products. However, the FDA recommends consulting a medical professional if you have any concerns about using sunscreen during pregnancy.¹⁷

Is zinc oxide sunscreen better than chemical sunscreen?

Various sun protection formulations are classified as either mineral sunscreens or chemical sunscreens. The former contains mineral-based sun-protective ingredients, like zinc oxide, and are sometimes called “physical sunscreens.” The latter has non-mineral-based light filters like octisalate. You can find them in pure and mixed or hybrid forms.

Performance-wise, zinc oxide sunscreens have been found to be better than chemical sunscreens. They protect you from a wide light spectrum—UVA, UVB, IR, and if the particles are large enough, blue light. Meanwhile, their chemical counterparts can only filter out UVA, UVB, or both. They can’t block IR and blue light on their own.¹⁸

As far as safety goes, zinc oxide sunscreens also have the upper hand. Studies show that daily use of these products doesn’t lead to skin penetration or toxicity.¹⁹ Additionally, UV doesn’t degrade zinc oxide particles. 

In contrast, many chemical actives break down after absorbing UV light. Their byproducts can irritate the skin. Light instability also means you may need to apply chemical sunscreens more often.²⁰

Is titanium dioxide or zinc oxide better in sunscreen?

Titanium dioxide is also a mineral sunscreen active component. It has many properties similar to zinc oxide. For example, large titanium dioxide particles form white or bluish-white casts on the skin—though this is less common with titanium nanoparticles. 

However, it becomes more predominantly UVB-protective the smaller the particles get. By comparison, zinc oxide stays equally effective against both UVA and UVB, even at nanoparticle size. Though when used together, zinc and titanium oxide provide good broad spectrum protection.²¹

Safety-wise, the FDA classifies both minerals as GRASE substances, as previously mentioned.

What should you look for when choosing a zinc oxide sunscreen?

Effective sun protection isn’t a one-time thing. You must build it into your habits because sun exposure is an inevitable part of our lives. So health experts recommend that sunscreens generally should have the following characteristics:²²

  • Offer adequate protection from a wide light spectrum.

  • Have an adequate SPF. 

  • Have a formulation that encourages people to use them regularly in the recommended amount.

Studies have found that the following sunscreen qualities promote daily use:²³

  • Absorbs well

  • Good sensorial qualities, such as non-greasiness and having a nice smell.

  • Meets personal preferences regarding skin type (i.e. good for sensitive skin, non-comedogenic)

  • Overall effectiveness

  • Layers well with other skin care products and makeup.

  • Recommended by environmental groups and medical associations.

  • Affordability

Donna McIntyre, a nurse practitioner at Curology, has this simple advice: “The best sunscreen is one you will wear every day! So when choosing a product, it’s important to find one with an SPF of 30 or more that works well with your skin.”.

What makes The Sunscreen by Curology an excellent sunscreen?

Curology: The Sunscreen is a SPF 30 zinc oxide mineral sunscreen, specially formulated for acne-prone and sensitive skin types.

Curology The Sunscreen

Curology’s The Sunscreen contains 9.4% zinc oxide. It provides broad-spectrum protection while minimizing white cast. It’s formula is non-greasy and dermatologist-designed to protect without clogging pores. It’s also formulated with moisturizing ingredients that gives your skin a fresh finish.

Curology’s sunscreen meets health experts’ standards for a great sun protection product, while being easy on the budget. Talk to a Curology licensed dermatology provider to learn more.

Your best option: zinc oxide for sunscreen

Sunscreens reduce the risk of skin cancer and skin photoaging. Various studies show that zinc oxide is superior to other sunscreen ingredients in terms of performance and safety profile.

Choosing a sunscreen can be confusing, with the numerous formulations available. But the right one should give you adequate sun protection and keep you on a good sunscreen habit.

Get your personalized skincare routine with Curology

Get your personalized skincare routine with Curology

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You can find the perfect sunscreen to include in your personalized skin care regimen with the help of your Curology licensed dermatology provider. Sign up for a trial* and give your skin the expert care it deserves, starting today.

FAQs

Is zinc oxide sunscreen safe to use everyday?

Yes, it is. This mineral sunscreen ingredient doesn’t penetrate the skin, even with daily use.²⁴ Regular topical application of a zinc oxide sunscreen doesn’t produce toxic effects.²⁵

Do zinc oxide sunscreens lighten the skin?

Sunscreens generally prevent hyperpigmentation. Recent evidence shows that some additives may enhance the ability of sunscreens to prevent sun damage and even help reverse photoaging. These additives include antioxidants like vitamin C and DNA-repairing substances called “photolyases.”²⁶

Does sunscreen block Vitamin D formation?

Vitamin D comes from various sources. One is the skin, where UV exposure facilitates its formation.²⁷ Sunscreens may reduce the skin’s vitamin D production by filtering out UV light. But you can make up for it by consuming certain foods or taking supplements. If you have any concerns, the AAD recommends working with a medical professional to ensure you’re getting the right amount of this important nutrient.²⁸

Is SPF 30 good enough?

The sun protection factor, abbreviated as “SPF,” indicates the level of UVA and UVB protection afforded by a skin care product. The AAD recommends using at least an SPF of 30 every day but be sure to apply enough with each application.²⁹ The modified teaspoon rule can help you remember how much “adequate” is:³⁰

  • 1 teaspoon on the face, head and neck.

  • 1 teaspoon on each upper limb.

  • 2 teaspoons for the back.

  • 2 teaspoons on each lower limb.

Apply sunscreen 15 minutes before sun exposure. If you plan to stay in the sun for a while, or if you are swimming or sweating, it’s best to reapply every two hours or as specified on the product label.³¹

Note that it is important to apply the recommended amount of sunscreen for proper protection. If you feel you’re unable to use enough sunscreen, you may consider a higher-SPF product to make up for the deficit.³²

• • •

P.S. We did the homework so you don’t have to:

  1. Guan, L.L., et al. Sunscreens and Photoaging: A Review of Current Literature. American Journal of Clinical Dermatology. (2021, August 13).

  2. Coats, J., et al. Blue Light Protection. Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology. (2020, November 28). 

  3. Schneider, S.L. and Lim, H.W. A review of inorganic UV filters zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. Photodermatology, Photoimmunology and Photomedicine. (2018, November 16).

  4. Cole, C., et al. Metal oxide sunscreens protect skin by absorption, not by reflection or scattering. Photodermatology, Photoimmunology and Photomedicine. (2015, October 2).

  5. Cole, C., et al. Metal oxide sunscreens protect skin by absorption, not by reflection or scattering. Photodermatology, Photoimmunology and Photomedicine. Ibid.

  6. Schneider, S.L. and Lim, H.W. A review of inorganic UV filters zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. Photodermatology, Photoimmunology and Photomedicine. Ibid.

  7. Kim, S.J., et al. A novel in vivo test method for evaluating the infrared radiation protection provided by sunscreen products. Skin Research and Technology. (2019, July 23).

  8. Bernstein, E.F. et al. Iron oxides in novel skin care formulations attenuate blue light for enhanced protection against skin damage. Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology. (2020, November 18).

  9. U.S. Food & Drug Administration. Over-the-Counter Monograph M020: Sunscreen Drug Products for Over-the-Counter Human Use. (2021, September 24).

  10. Schneider, S.L. and Lim, H.W. A review of inorganic UV filters zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. Photodermatology, Photoimmunology and Photomedicine. Ibid.

  11. Sabzevari, N., et al. Sunscreens: UV filters to protect us: Part 1: Changing regulations and choices for optimal sun protection. International Journal of Women’s Dermatology. (January 2021).

  12. U.S. Food & Drug Administration. Sunscreen: How to Help Protect Your Skin from the Sun. (2022, December 16).

  13. American Academy of Dermatology Association. Infant Sun Protection: How Parents Can Keep Their Baby Safe. (n.d.).

  14. American Academy of Dermatology Association. Sunscreen FAQs. (2023, February 17). 

  15. American Academy of Dermatology Association. Sunscreen FAQs. Ibid.

  16. Shareef, S., et al. Assessing public interest in sunscreen safety during pregnancy and lactation. International Journal of Women’s Dermatology. (June 2022).

  17. U.S. Food & Drug Administration. Questions and Answers: FDA posts deemed final order and proposed order for over-the-counter sunscreen. (2022, December 16).

  18. Guan, L.L., et al. Sunscreens and Photoaging: A Review of Current Literature. American Journal of Clinical Dermatology. Ibid.

  19. Mohammed, Y. H., et al. Support for the Safe Use of Zinc Oxide Nanoparticle Sunscreens: Lack of Skin Penetration or Cellular Toxicity After Repeated Application in Volunteers. Journal of Investigative Dermatology. (2018, November 15).

  20. Nash, J.F. and Tanner, P.R. Relevance of UV filter/sunscreen product photostability to human safety. Photodermatology, Photoimmunology and Photomedicine. (2014, January 17).

  21. Schneider, S.L. and Lim, H.W. A review of inorganic UV filters zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. Photodermatology, Photoimmunology and Photomedicine. Ibid.

  22. Osterwalder, U., et al. Global state of sunscreens. Photodermatology, Photoimmunology and Photomedicine. (2014, January 17).

  23. Xu, S., et al. Sunscreen Product Performance and Other Determinants of Consumer Preferences. JAMA Dermatology. (August 2016). 

  24. Mohammed, Y.H., et al. Support for the Safe Use of Zinc Oxide Nanoparticle Sunscreens: Lack of Skin Penetration or Cellular Toxicity After Repeated Application in Volunteers. Journal of Investigative Dermatology. Ibid.

  25. Schneider, S.L. and Lim, H.W. A review of inorganic UV filters zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. Photodermatology, Photoimmunology and Photomedicine. Ibid.

  26. Guan, L.L. et al. Sunscreens and Photoaging: A Review of Current Literature. American Journal of Clinical Dermatology. Ibid.

  27. Hawk, J.L.M. Safe, mild ultraviolet-B exposure: An essential human requirement for vitamin D and other vital body parameter adequacy: A review. Photodermatology, Photoimmunology and Photomedicine. (2020, July 5). 

  28. American Academy of Dermatology Association. Sunscreen FAQs. Ibid.

  29. American Academy of Dermatology Association. Sunscreen FAQs. Ibid.

  30. Portilho, L., et al. Effectiveness of sunscreens and factors influencing sun protection: a review. Brazilian Journal of Pharmaceutical Sciences. (January 2022).

  31. American Academy of Dermatology Association. Sunscreen FAQs. Ibid.

  32. Osterwalder, U., et al. Global state of sunscreens. Photodermatology, Photoimmunology and Photomedicine. Ibid.

Donna McIntyre is a board-certified nurse practitioner at Curology. She obtained her Master of Science in Nursing at MGH Institute of Health Professions in Boston, MA.

*Cancel anytime. Subject to consultation. Results may vary.

• • •
Our medical review process: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.
Our policy on product links: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).
Our policy on affiliate links:Empowering you with knowledge is our top priority. Though some of the links in this post are for paid affiliate partners, all of the products recommended are researched and medically fact-checked to meet our standards for ingredients (at the time of publication).
Our thoughts on sun protection: *Sunscreen is only one part of UV protection—cute sun hats and shades are also recommended.
Curology Team Avatar

Curology Team

Donna McIntyre, NP-BC

Donna McIntyre, NP-BC

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