If you ask any dermatologist about sunscreen, the first thing they're going to do is stress the importance of using it every day. But when it comes time to choose, you're left to face a plethora of options that have labels and claims you may have never heard of before.
When it all comes down to it, there are two key factors to consider in which sunscreen you choose: formula type and SPF number. SPF numbers are familiar territory for most, but the same can't be said about formula types.
Sunscreens are typically labeled as physical or chemical. 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 favorites for face and body.
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," says Dr. Howard Sobel, celebrity dermatologist and founder of Sobel Skin Rx.
Chemical vs mineral sunscreen: What's the difference?
“Chemical sunscreens consist of a group of ‘active’ SPF ingredients that absorb into the skin and catch harmful UV rays and transfer them into heat,” explains Dr. Robert Finney, a board-certified dermatologist and hair loss expert based in New York City. “Physical sunscreens [with] mineral ingredients [like] zinc and titanium oxide sit more on the top of the skin and reflect the UV light away to prevent damage.”
Chemical sunscreens also tend to be lighter in texture and consistency, while mineral formulas are often thicker due to the presence of zinc oxide and can leave a white cast behind in some cases. With that said, there’s been a wealth of innovation in the mineral sunscreen category within the last few years, and many brands are finding ways to reduce or eliminate white casts from their formulas.
Mineral sunscreens for face
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 skin care routine. In order for them to work their best, they must be at the surface of your products," dermatologist Dr. Deanne Robinson says.
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," says Dr. Robert Anolik, a fellow of the American Academy of Dermatology.
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," Los Angeles-based aesthetician and dermatological nurse Natalie Aguilar says.
Stick sunscreens can help keep you protected without the mess that comes from using traditional liquid forms. This option from Aveeno is designed with sensitive skin in mind, is sweat- and water-resistant and can be used on the face and body.
"I recommend this liquid mineral sunscreen for those who prefer a lightweight sunscreen with a matte finish," Aguilar says. "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 or artificial fragrances and colors.
This lightweight sunscreen boasts three-way protection from the elements: electronic pollution from screens, environmental pollution and the sun. Despite the peachy color, it's formulated to leave behind no white cast on any skin tone.
Drunk Elephant's sunscreen is designed to provide moisture, broad-spectrum protection and minimize the appearance of fine lines all at once. Key ingredients in its formula are raspberry seed oil, marula oil and sunflower shoot extract.
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.
The brand calls this sunscreen the "100% mineral twin" to their popular Unsun Sunscreen. Despite most mineral sunscreens being known for leaving behind a white cast, this one is formulated to dry on sheer and feel weightless.
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 says.
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? Broad-spectrum protection from harmful UVA and UVB rays.
Both Finney and dermatologist Dr. Marisa Garshick highly recommend this fail-safe mineral formula from Glo Skin Beauty, which feels more like a lightweight moisturizer than SPF. “It's infused with hyaluronic acid to hydrate and offers a lightweight formula that works with all skin tones,” says Garshick.
Another favorite from both Garshick and Finney is this high-tech option from ISDIN, a brand known and beloved for its innovative sunscreens.
“This is a great mineral-based sunscreen that is sweat- and water-resistant and also contains an enzyme shown to improve the DNA damage created by the sun,” says Finney. “This is a product that I personally use when I am active outdoors and I frequently recommend it to patients [as] it blends in nicely and does not leave a significant cast behind.”
Sometimes applying sunscreen is as easy as swiping it on. Case in point, this easy-to-use mineral powder sunscreen from Colorescience. 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.
Mineral sunscreens for body
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," Aguilar says.
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.
Recommended by the Skin Cancer Foundation, this fragrance-free formula is a good option for those with super sensitive skin. It boasts water-resistance for up to 80 minutes and nourishes skin with a blend of coconut, sunflower seed and olive fruit oils, which is especially ideal for folks with drier skin.
This new mineral formula from Neutrogena is fast-absorbing, fragrance-free and won’t leave a chalky feeling on the skin which is a major plus.
“Providing broad-spectrum coverage, this sunscreen uses zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, making it a great option for all skin types, including those with sensitive skin,” says Garshick. “It also incorporates vitamin E and uses Dry-Touch Technology so it leaves the skin feeling soft and smooth and without feeling greasy.”
"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," Robinson says.
The non-aerosol mist dries quickly, offers broad-spectrum SPF 30 coverage and is water-resistant for up to 80 minutes, according to its description. "Beyond SPF, the formula features marigold, sunflower antioxidants and aloe vera, which work to reduce sun and free radical damage," she adds.
“The latest from Colorescience, this lightweight formula can be used on the face or body and in addition to zinc oxide, contains moisturizing ingredients, such as silver ear mushroom extract to help boost hydration,” says Garshick. “As the name implies, it absorbs easily and won’t leave behind a white cast.”
This innovative formula features the brand’s unique EnviroScreen® technology, which protects against UVA/UVB damage, blue light, infrared light, free radicals and pollution.
Frequently asked questions
Is mineral or chemical sunscreen better for aging?
As any expert will tell you, the best sunscreen for aging is the one you actually wear — it’s that simple. However, some dermatologists do favor one type over the other when it comes to age prevention, and Finney is one of them. “Mineral sunscreen can be more effective by preventing UV light from ever penetrating and can definitely be a better choice for those looking to prevent signs of aging,” he says. “With that being said, the most effective sunscreen is the one that you will actually use.”
For this reason, Finney says he and fellow dermatologists try to find patients a broad-spectrum sunscreen with SPF 30 or higher that they like applying, rather than focusing too much on the formula type.
Is mineral sunscreen safer than chemical sunscreen?
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 previously said it was 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.
Why does mineral sunscreen leave a white cast?
It all comes down to the types of ingredients or UV filters used. “Mineral sunscreens are made up of zinc oxide and titanium dioxide and these particles can sit on the skin’s surface and contribute to the appearance of a white cast,” explains Garshick. “Zinc oxide also exists naturally as a white powder which can contribute to the white appearance left behind.”
Garshick adds that mineral sunscreens can take some time to absorb into the skin, but once they fully sink in, the white cast can sometimes be less noticeable. Moreover, brands are getting better and better at formulating with filters like zinc oxide, so it’s entirely possible that we won’t be dealing with the dreaded white cast in years to come.
What are the pros and cons of both types?
When it comes down to it, neither formula type is perfect. The white cast is definitely the most glaring con when it comes to mineral SPF — that, and they can take longer to rub in and absorb into the skin. “There are a lot of great new formulations with very little risk of this, but until you are able to try it on your skin, you may not know,” says Finney. “Still, you can get more effective coverage with high concentrations of mineral-based ingredients, so think lower risk of skin cancer.”
Both Finney and Garshick agree that mineral formulas are a better option for those with sensitive skin and sun-sensitive conditions like melasma as some ingredients in chemical sunscreens can be irritating and the heat created by chemical sunscreens can trigger more pigment.
Finney says chemical SPF is not quite as effective as mineral sunscreens when it comes to creating a physical barrier to block UV rays. “Another con is that some of the chemical ingredients have been shown to damage ocean reefs, so looking for a reef-safe product is helpful if you'll be swimming in the ocean,” he adds. In terms of pros, chemical formulas are cast-less and typically feel very nice to apply, much like a lightweight moisturizer that sinks right in.
Meet the experts
- Dr. Howard Sobel, MD, is a celebrity dermatologist in New York and founder of Sobel Skin Rx.
- Dr. Robert Finney, MD, FAAD, is a board-certified dermatologist and hair loss expert based in New York City.
- Dr. Deanne Robinson, MD, FAAD, is a fellowship-trained and board-certified dermatologist in Connecticut.
- Dr. Robert Anolik, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist and a fellow of the American Academy of Dermatology. He specializes in cosmetic dermatology and laser skin surgery.
- Dr. Marisa Garshick, MD, FAAD, is a board-certified dermatologist for MDCS Dermatology: Medical Dermatology & Cosmetic Surgery. She serves patients in Manhattan, New York, and Clifton, New Jersey.