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If you've ever wondered what a mineral sunscreen is and whether or not you should use one, you're not alone. Comparing all the different sunscreen formulas out there can sometimes feel overwhelming, but mineral sunscreens aren't all that confusing after all — and they might actually be the safest option around.
Shop TODAY consulted top dermatologists to help break down what makes mineral sunscreens different from chemical ones, and also asked them to share a few of their favorite products.
What is mineral sunscreen?
There are two main types of sunscreens: physical (mineral) and chemical. While chemical sunscreens work by absorbing into the skin and then absorbing UV rays, the particles in mineral-based sunscreens sit on top of the skin's surface and prevent UV rays from entering. Mineral sunscreens typically use zinc oxide and titanium dioxide as the two main active ingredients.
"Mineral sunscreen is also often known as physical sunscreen, as it provides a physical barrier between your skin and sun rays," said Dr. Howard Sobel, celebrity dermatologist and founder of Sobel Skin Rx.
Some experts argue that mineral sunscreen might be slightly safer than chemical sunscreen. This is because mineral formulas sit on the surface of the skin, while chemical versions can be absorbed into the bloodstream.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has published two studies in the past few years reporting that several active ingredients in chemical sunscreens (including avobenzone, oxybenzone, octocrylene, homosalate, octisalate and octinoxate) could remain in your bloodstream for quite some time. The FDA says it's currently seeking more information on chemical sunscreen ingredients, though it notes that "absorption does not equal risk" and it has not yet deemed the ingredients unsafe for use in sunscreen.
The FDA does recognize zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, the two main ingredients used in mineral sunscreens, as safe and effective.
Dermatologist-approved mineral sunscreens
Sobel swears by the lightweight SPF 50, which is made with Purescreen, a blend of naturally sourced titanium dioxide and zinc oxide. Its water-resistant formula is active for 80 minutes and protects skin from both UVA and UVB rays. Plus, it's non-comedogenic so it won't cause breakouts!
This sport sunscreen is formulated with zinc oxide and is free of dyes, fragrance, parabens and formaldehyde. The non-greasy, water- and sweat-resistant formula makes it perfect for both face and body and pretty convenient for those who love outdoor activities.
"It's particularly gentle and good for sensitive or even eczema-prone skin," said David E. Bank, a dermatologist at the Center for Dermatology, Cosmetic & Laser Surgery in New York.
"It’s hard to find spray formulas that are mineral-based (most are chemical sunscreens). This one is perfect for my squirmy kids and for quick reapplications," dermatologist Deanne Robinson told TODAY.
The non-aerosol mist dries quickly, offers broad-spectrum SPF 30 coverage and is water-resistant for up to 80 minutes. "Beyond SPF, the formula features marigold, sunflower antioxidants and aloe vera, which work to reduce sun and free radical damage," Robinson said.
Despite its name, this powerhouse sunscreen isn't just for kiddos. "I recommend it to many of my sensitive skin clients because it’s lightweight, hypoallergenic, non-greasy and easy to blend in," celebrity aesthetician and dermatological nurse Natalie Aguilar said.
Zinc oxide joins forces with coconut oil, shea butter and cocoa butter to moisturize and protect skin, and the formula is free of irritants like fragrance and dyes.
The good news? Mineral sunscreens can be layered on top of your other skin care products (like serums and moisturizers). With one caveat, of course. "With mineral sunscreens, be sure you are applying them last in your skincare routine. In order for them to work their best they must be at the surface of your products," Robinson said.
CeraVe's broad spectrum SPF 50 combines zinc oxide and titanium dioxide with hydrating ceramides to moisturize and protect skin. "It's a great option for those seeking mineral protection and for those with dry skin who need sunscreen with greater hydrating properties," said Dr. Robert Anolik, a fellow of the American Academy of Dermatology.
Once upon a time, many people avoided mineral sunscreens because the zinc oxide left their faces looking white and pasty. Luckily, they've come a long way in the past decade and many mineral formulas have a nice, clean finish now.
"This product is incredibly sheer. It blends into the skin seamlessly, leaving a soft, clean and dewy finish,” Sobel said.
In addition to shielding skin from the sun, Biossance's mineral SPF also helps cool and calm skin with water lily and locks in moisture with sugarcane-derived squalane.
Anolik loves the smooth texture of this mineral sunscreen formulated with zinc oxide. As it turns out, zinc can provide multiple skin care benefits in addition to protecting you from the sun.
"Zinc also contains natural antimicrobial agents for acne-prone skin, and is commonly used to treat and prevent various skin conditions," Aguilar said.
Mineral sunscreens are generally a better choice for sensitive skin, but you just need to read the ingredients list to make sure it's oil-free and non-comedogenic if you're acne-prone. This one from Babo Botanicals is safe enough to use on babies but strong enough to protect adults, too.
"It’s water-resistant for up to 80 minutes and it’s very lightweight with no irritating fragrance. It's great for face and body and is vegan-, soy-, gluten- and dairy-free," Aguilar said.
"I recommend this liquid mineral sunscreen for those who prefer a lightweight sunscreen with a matte finish," Aguilar said. "You feel this soak right into the skin. It’s a wonderful liquid silk that penetrates quickly."
The sunscreen is available in three tinted shades and works for both face and body. Plus, it's made without gluten, parabens, sulfates and artificial fragrances and colors.
Mineral sunscreen is typically thicker than chemical ones and it can occasionally cause breakouts if you're acne-prone, but this lightweight formula is non-comedogenic and gentle enough for sensitive skin. "It's a great option for those who want mineral sunscreen protection and some tint while going makeup-free," Anolik said.
Top-rated mineral sunscreens
This compact may look like your everyday matte foundation, but it's actually a lightweight, cream-to-powder mineral sunscreen enriched with powerful antioxidants. The result? A broad protection from harmful UVA and UVB rays.
Recommended by the Skin Cancer Foundation, this dermatologist-approved mineral sunscreen absorbs quickly and remains water-resistant for up to 80 minutes. It also gives you a naturally warm glow almost instantly.
Loaded with clean ingredients like shea and cocoa butters, organic aloe and a blend of apple, strawberry and kiwi extracts, this mineral sunscreen is almost good enough to eat. Have we mentioned it also leaves your skin feeling silky smooth almost immediately?
Sometimes applying sunscreen is as easy as swiping it on. Case in point, this easy-to-use mineral powder sunscreen from Tarte Cosmetics. Not only is it grease- and mess-free, but it can be applied to hard-to-navigate areas that need extra sun protection like your scalp, hairline and shoulders.
For more stories like this, check out:
- 10 dermatologist-approved products to protect your skin
- The best sunscreen for your face, according to dermatologists
- This $10 sunscreen is keeping my skin breakout-free and protected
- 6 affordable sunscreens Shop TODAY editors actually like wearing
- This Sun Bum sunscreen convinced me to wear SPF every day