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Sun protection 101: Everything you need to know about zinc sunscreen

Wondering if this type of sunscreen is right for you? Dermatology providers share the advantages of this mineral SPF.

Curology Team Avatar
by Curology Team
Updated on Sep 20, 2023 • 9 min read
Medically reviewed by Kristen Jokela, NP-C
A Woman Applying Some Sunscreen on Her Nose
Curology Team Avatar
by Curology Team
Updated on Sep 20, 2023 • 9 min read
Medically reviewed by Kristen Jokela, NP-C
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.

When it comes to protecting your skin from the sun, you’re not settling for second best. And why should you? Your skin is your largest organ and your first line of defense from the outside world, so it’s only natural that you want to protect it from the dangers of sun exposure, like photoaging and skin cancer. And a good sunscreen can help you do just that.¹

We’ve all been hearing a lot about zinc sunscreen in the skincare community recently. You might be wondering: “Is it worth the hype?” “Is it right for my skin type?” “Does it really work better than other sunscreens?” “Is it really better for the environment?” 

Those are all great questions! And here at Curology, we’re giving you the answers. We asked our team of licensed dermatology providers to uncover everything you need to know about zinc sunscreen so you can make the best choices for your skin’s health.

What is zinc sunscreen?

Zinc sunscreen—also known as a physical sunscreen or mineral sunscreen—includes the naturally occurring mineral zinc oxide as an active ingredient. Zinc oxide doesn’t penetrate past the outermost layer of the skin.² It also protects the skin from UVA (long-wave ultraviolet rays) and UVB (short-wave ultraviolet rays) radiation.³

Which is better? Zinc oxide or titanium dioxide

Trying to decide between titanium dioxide and zinc oxide in your sunscreen? Just like zinc oxide, titanium dioxide (also known as TiO2) is a naturally occurring mineral that acts as an inorganic physical blocker. Both minerals reflect and absorb harmful UVA and UVB rays, so are able to provide excellent broad-spectrum protection.⁴

You may have noticed that some mineral sunscreens include one ingredient or the other, or even both. That’s because they have some differences that are important to note:

  • Protection: Zinc oxide has an edge over titanium dioxide when it comes to UVA protection, which protects against photoaging. In comparison, titanium dioxide has superior protection against UVB rays, which are the rays that cause sunburns.⁵

  • Skin compatibility: Both are safe for all skin types, including sensitive skin.⁶

In general, both titanium dioxide and zinc dioxide are great options for full sun protection. Which one you choose depends on your specific needs and preferences; your dermatology provider will be able to provide personalized advice on which is most preferable for your skin. 

How do mineral sunscreens differ from chemical sunscreens?

Both chemical and physical sunscreens are designed to protect the skin from the sun’s UVA and UVB rays, but that’s where the similarities end. When comparing mineral vs. chemical sunscreens, there are some notable differences that may affect which you choose.

Active ingredients

One of the most primary ways that chemical and mineral sunscreens differ is their active ingredients—the ingredients that do all the protecting. Chemical sunscreens have a chemical formula made with organic UV filters such as:

  • Oxybenzone

  • Octocrylene

  • Octinoxate

  • Ethylhexyl salicylate

As you may have heard by now, some of these ingredients may unfortunately have a negative impact on the environment—especially on ocean life and coral reefs.⁷

On the other hand, mineral sunscreen’s active ingredients are the inorganic UV filters zinc oxide and titanium oxide. They’re generally eco-friendly and recommended as alternatives to chemical sunscreens, as they’ll help keep your skin and the earth safe while you have fun in the sun.⁸

Mode of Action

Not only do chemical and mineral sunscreens differ in their composition, but they also work differently in how they protect your skin! 

Chemical sunscreens absorb UV rays and then convert them into heat that gets released from the skin.⁹ In comparison, mineral sunscreens mainly work by reflecting or scattering UV rays away from the skin. But when these mineral sunscreens are made into very small particles (AKA micronized), they have been experimentally found to have a similar mechanism of action as chemical sunscreens.¹⁰ 

Skin Irritation

Since their mode of action is different, chemical and mineral sunscreens also differ in how much they may irritate the skin. Chemical sunscreen is generally considered more potentially irritating as it may cause allergic contact dermatitis.¹¹

Mineral sunscreens are gentler because the minerals sit on top of the skin. In fact, the FDA proposed GRASE (Generally Recognized as Safe and Effective) status for mineral sunscreens in 2022.¹² So you can rest assured that mineral sunscreens are safe, gentle, and effective at blocking harmful sun rays.

The advantages and disadvantages of zinc oxide sunscreen 

Just like any other skin product, zinc sunscreen has its own pros and cons. 

The benefits of zinc sunscreen

Zinc sunscreen comes packaged with various benefits; the most significant being broad-spectrum protection from UVA and UVB rays. When compared with chemical sunscreens, zinc sunscreen has a more immediate effect and causes less skin irritation.

Zinc sunscreen is likely your best option if you have sensitive skin. And, it’s FDA-approved and eco-friendly, making it all-around great for any skin type.

The disadvantages of zinc sunscreen

Zinc sunscreen also has some cons, which include its well-known tendency to leave a white cast on the skin due to its mineral content. It also requires a larger amount for protection compared to chemical sunscreens, and there’s a possibility that it might stain your clothes. And notably, it may cost more than chemical sunscreens.

How can you choose the best mineral sunscreen for your skin type?

How can you choose the best mineral sunscreen for your skin type? Sunscreens aren’t created equal—some may be better than others, particularly depending on your skin type. As a general rule, avoid those with any type of alcohol in them because alcohol can be drying and harsh on some skin types.

If you’ve got acne-prone skin, be sure to choose a mineral sunscreen that is non-comedogenic, meaning it won’t clog your pores. 

If you have dry, sensitive skin, you may want to look for a zinc sunscreen that has an added moisturizer in it. And if you have hyperpigmentation concerns like postinflammatory hyperpigmentation or melasma or your skin is extremely sensitive to physical light, you could consider a tinted sunscreen. These have iron oxides and pigmentary titanium dioxide to help protect your skin against visible light—like light from your cellphone or laptop!¹³

Ultimately, your licensed dermatology provider will guide you on what type of sunscreen is optimal for your skin type. 

Find the best zinc sunscreen for you with Curology

Sunscreen is a key part of your daily skincare routine, and zinc sunscreen is a safe and effective choice for sun protection—especially if you have sensitive or acne-prone skin. Now, your next step is to find the right sunscreen that suits your unique skin. Remember, there’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to skincare. Your decision should be based on your specific needs and skin type. Curology’s sunscreen, which is made with 9.4% zinc oxide, is formulated to be especially complementary to oil-prone and sensitive skin, leaving a silky finish and no white cast.

Get your personalized skincare routine with Curology

Get your personalized skincare routine with Curology

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Our licensed dermatology providers are also here to offer tailored skincare solutions to meet your unique skin needs. They can help guide your choices and provide the personalized attention your skin deserves.

You don’t have to try to find the best solution on your own. Head to Curology today, take the skin quiz, and unlock your personalized skincare routine to get products sent straight to your doorstep.

FAQs

Is it safe to use zinc oxide sunscreen everyday?

Absolutely, it’s safe to use zinc oxide sunscreen every day! In fact, we recommend daily sunscreen use for optimal protection against harmful UV rays, regardless of whether it’s sunny or cloudy outside. Zinc oxide is a physical blocker that acts as a shield to protect the skin from harmful rays.¹⁴ That kind of gentle daily protection is just what you need to keep your skin at its best.

Does zinc sunscreen dry out the skin?

Typically, zinc sunscreens don’t cause dry skin. They’re formulated to be gentle on the skin and provide protection without sucking out moisture. However, every skin type is unique, and what works for someone else might not work for you. If you have severely dry skin, you may want to use a zinc sunscreen that also includes moisturizing ingredients, such as ceramides or  hyaluronic acid to help keep your skin hydrated.

Does zinc sunscreen help acne?

Zinc oxide may have some unique advantages for acne-prone skin. Due to its mild anti-inflammatory properties, zinc oxide may help reduce some of that pesky redness and irritation you usually deal with when you have breakouts.¹⁵ It’s also less likely to clog pores compared to some chemical sunscreens. But remember, while zinc oxide can be part of a successful strategy against acne, zinc oxide isn’t an acne treatment on its own. If you’re concerned about acne, it’s always best to consult with a licensed dermatology provider for a comprehensive treatment plan.

• • •

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

  1. Sander, M., et al. The efficacy and safety of sunscreen use for the prevention of skin cancer. CMAJ. (2020, December 14).

  2. 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. J Invest Dermatol. (2018, November 15).

  3. 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. J Invest Dermatol. Ibid.

  4. Schneider, S.L. and Lim, H.W. A review of inorganic UV filters zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. Photodermatol Photoimmunol Photomed. (2018, December 10). 

  5. Sambandan, D.R. and Ratner, D. Sunscreens: an overview and update. J Am Acad Dermatol. (April 2011).

  6. American Academy of Dermatology Association. Sunscreen FAQs. (2023, July 19).

  7. Schneider S.L. and Lim, H.W.. Review of environmental effects of oxybenzone and other sunscreen active ingredients. J Am Acad Dermatol. (January 2019).

  8. Schneider S.L. and Lim, H.W.. Review of environmental effects of oxybenzone and other sunscreen active ingredients. J Am Acad Dermatol. Ibid.

  9. Sander, M., et al. The efficacy and safety of sunscreen use for the prevention of skin cancer. CMAJ. Ibid.

  10. Sander, M., et al. The efficacy and safety of sunscreen use for the prevention of skin cancer. CMAJ. Ibid.

  11. Sander, M., et al. The efficacy and safety of sunscreen use for the prevention of skin cancer. CMAJ. Ibid.

  12. Center for Drug Evaluation and Research. An update on sunscreen requirements: The deemed final order and the proposed order. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. (2022, December 16).

  13. Lyons, A.B., et al. Photoprotection beyond ultraviolet radiation: A review of tinted sunscreens. J Am Acad Dermatol. (May 2021).

  14. Gabros, S., et al. Sunscreens and Photoprotection. StatPearls. (n.d.).

  15. Feltis, B.N., et al. Characterizing the inhibitory action of zinc oxide nanoparticles on allergic-type mast cell activation. Mol Immunol. (August 2015).

Kristen Jokela is a certified Family Nurse Practitioner at Curology. She obtained her Master of Science in Nursing at the University of South Florida in Tampa, FL. *Cancel anytime. Subject to consultation. Results may vary.

*Sunscreen cannot prevent all harm from UV rays.

*PSA for your future skin: sunscreen alone cannot prevent all UV damage.

*Protect your future skin by wearing sunscreen and limiting direct sun exposure.

*Sun damage is still a risk even while wearing sunscreen.

*Sunscreen is only one part of UV protection—cute sun hats and shades are also recommended.

• • •
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.
Curology Team Avatar

Curology Team

Kristen Jokela, NP-C

Kristen Jokela, NP-C

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