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Chemical vs Mineral Sunscreen - Which one should you use?

Dr Tasneem Mitha  |  09 Nov 2021

Chemical vs. Mineral Sunscreen……Which one should you use?


Summer holidays are coming up, and we’ll be spending most of our days in the sun! 

UV exposure from sun doesn’t only accelerate the ageing of your skin and give you undesirable wrinkles and pigmentation, it also is the number one cause of melanoma = the most dangerous form of skin cancer. Fortunately, you can curb the negative effects of sun exposure by making sunscreen a regular part of your daily skin care regime, both face and body – but the question is which one should you choose? 

There’s so much confusion out there about which is the best, safest, and most effective sun protection to use! Let me start out by saying that “some sunscreen is better than none!” But if we want to get into the nitty gritty details of things and really know what’s in the sunscreen we’re using, and how effective is it, let’s break it down…..

Here’s what you need to know: There are essentially 2 main types of sunscreen: Chemical and Mineral (or Physical), and they protect your skin from the harmful effects of the sun in very different ways. And for certain skins, one type may beat the other. So which one is right for you?


Chemical Sunscreen


Chemical sunscreens allow the UV light to be absorbed into the skin. Once absorbed, the chemicals in the sunscreen create a chemical reaction to convert the UV light to heat. This heat then dissipates from the skin. 

Chemical sunscreens typically contain ingredients such as oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octinoxate etc. These act like a “sponge”, by physically absorbing the sun’s rays and convert them into a different shape so that it’s not as harmful for your skin.

There have been some controversies surrounding the use of chemical sunscreens – environmental groups recommend avoiding chemical sunscreens with oxybenzone because of concerns that this ingredient may disrupt hormones and cause skin allergies. It’s also been found that some of the chemicals in chemical sunscreens are absorbed into the blood, and concerns have been raised about the potential toxic effects of this over long term use.

Oxybenzone has also been found to bleach and damage coral reefs, and for this reason, it’s not advised to use chemical sunscreens when sunbathing and swimming in the ocean. Some tourist destinations such as Hawaii have even banned oxybenzone for this reason.

For now, the overall consensus with regard to chemical sunscreens is that more research is required to determine their (long term) efficacy and safety, however there is a consensus that the known health risks of sun exposure far outweigh the potential risk of absorbing sunscreen chemicals. So in other words, its more dangerous to NOT use sunscreen than to use a chemical sunscreen!


The Pros of Chemical Sunscreen

Chemical sunscreens are usually quick and easy to apply and don’t leave a white film on the skin, like mineral sunscreens do (or used to do). They are also shown to protect the skin from UV rays for longer when compared with mineral sunscreens.


The Cons of Chemical Sunscreen

Have you ever heard people complaining that they are “allergic” to sunscreen? The chemicals in chemical sunscreen can cause allergic reactions in people, and it can cause inflammation due to its heat dissipation, thereby worsening inflammatory skin conditions such as rosacea and melasma.

Chemical sunscreens take 20-30 minutes to be absorbed into the skin, and its recommended that sunscreen be applied at least 20 minutes before sun exposure.



Mineral Sunscreen


Mineral sunscreens contain ingredients such as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. These particles sit on the skin surface and physically prevent the UV rays from penetrating the skin. Mineral sunblocks therefore essentially act as a physical shield.

I personally love, prescribe and recommend the Heliocare 360 range to all my patients. Heliocare 360 is an innovative physical sunscreen that combines the anti-ageing benefits, potent sun protection and skin repair actions, protecting the skin not only from the harmful effects of UVA and UVB, but also Visible Light and Infra Red radiation. Research has shown that darker skin types who have prolonged exposure to screens (cell phones, laptops etc) have an increased risk of pigmentation as these devices produce High Energy Visible Light (HEVL).

Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide have been recognized as safe and effective by the FDA, and generally, mineral sunscreens do not pose potential health risks, unlike their chemical counterparts.


The Pros of Mineral Sunscreen

Mineral sunscreen is generally considered to be safer for people who are worried about long term exposure to chemical ingredients. It is also more suitable for babies and children (Heliocare Paediatrics Mineral SPF 50 is specially designed for babies and children, and those with sensitive and/or atopic skin), and also for people with melasma and rosacea. We highly recommend the “hero product”, Mesoestetic’s Mesoprotech melan 130 pigment control. This innovative sunblock is a combination of physical, chemical and biological filters, and provides very high factor sun protection. It is especially indicated for skin with pigmentation imperfections, as it regulates melanin synthesis.

Unlike chemical sunscreens, mineral sunscreens offer immediate protection, due to their physical nature, therefore no waiting time is needed. They can also be applied on top of make up and other skin products. Our absolute current favourite is ZO Skin Health’s Sunscreen and Powder Broad Spectrum SPF 40. This amazing pigmented brush-on sunscreen comes in 3 shades, and can be applied over make up throughout the day, providing a buildable coverage with colour-enhancing pigments and light reflecting minerals, leaving the skin with a luminous glow!


The Cons of Mineral Sunscreen

Mineral sunscreens tend to be thick, and because they sit ontop of the skin, rather than being absorbed into the skin, they may contribute to breakouts in people with acne prone skin. Therefore acne-prone or combination skins may benefit from combination sunscreen products with additives such as niacinamide. Our favourite for acne-prone and oily skins is Heliocare 360 SPF 50 Gel Oil Free (best seller on Amazon), which is a non-comedogenic formula (ie, doesn’t block pores). It also comes in 3 tinted shades (pearl, beige, bronze) for more complete “BB cream-like’ coverage.

Mineral sunscreens tend to be harder to apply, and are not as light and versatile as the chemical sunscreens. They also need to be applied more frequently as their UV protective effect is not as long as that of chemical sunscreens.

Newer formulations on the market mean that mineral sunscreens are no longer leaving a white film on the skin, and they now come in micro-ionised and tinted forms to blend in with your skin a bit better


SO, What’s the Bottom line?…..mineral sunscreens are slightly superior to chemical sunscreens, as they cause less sensitivity reactions, are suitable for all skin types including babies and small children, and they may be safer for long term use.


Having said that, some sunscreen is better than none, and it’s important to make sure you are using a broad spectrum sunscreen (to protect you from both types of UV rays, UVA and UVB), with an SPF value of 15 or higher, making sure to reapply at least every 2-3 hours, or more frequently if you have water exposure.



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