Mineral vs. Chemical Sunscreen: What’s the Difference?
There are two types of active ingredients in sunscreen (also known as UV filters) that can help protect your skin from the sun’s rays: physical barriers (mineral sunscreen) and chemical barriers (chemical sunscreen). In order to choose the right sun protection for your skin and your lifestyle, it's important to understand what sets these two apart. Let's take a look at the difference between chemical and mineral sunscreen with the help of board-certified dermatologist Dr. Sejal Shah.
Sun protection is an essential step in any skincare routine for healthy-looking skin. Applying a broad-spectrum sunscreen daily can help protect all skin types from the detrimental effects of UVA and UVB rays—including sunburn and premature skin aging. When it comes to protecting your skin from the sun’s harmful rays, there are two types of sun filters to choose from: mineral sunscreen and chemical sunscreen. These two types of sunscreens perform in different ways, which is why it’s important to understand the difference between them. To help you choose the right option for your skin, we consulted with Dr. Sejal Shah for the must-know information on mineral vs. chemical sunscreens.
Facts About Mineral vs. Chemical Sunscreen:
- Studies have found that individuals who use sunscreen daily (SPF 15 or higher) show 24% less signs of visible skin aging.1
- There are two main types of sunscreen filters: mineral (which forms a physical barrier to help reflect UVA and UVB rays) and chemical (which absorbs rays and converts them into non-damaging heat via a chemical reaction).
- The active ingredients in mineral sunscreen are zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. Chemical sunscreen ingredients include oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate, and octinoxate.
- The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved the active ingredients listed above as both safe and effective for use on skin.2
Who Should Use Sunscreen?
Everyone requires adequate protection from the sun’s rays, regardless of age, gender, skin type, or skin tone. “Ultraviolet radiation (UVR) from the sun is extremely damaging to the skin,” says Dr. Shah. “Not only is it a primary cause of skin cancer and precancerous lesions, but it also leads to premature skin aging, wrinkles, and dark spots.”
As for how this occurs, Dr. Shah explains that “UV radiation readily penetrates unprotected skin and leads to damage on a DNA and cellular level that results in the above visible negative effects. Therefore, sunscreen is a vital part of protecting the skin against the sun.“ According to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), the right sunscreen can help protect against sunburn, skin cancer, and signs of premature skin aging—like sun spots and wrinkles.3
Mineral vs. Chemical Sunscreen Ingredients
As mentioned above, there are two types of sunscreen ingredients: mineral sunscreen filters (also known as physical sunscreen) and chemical sunscreen filters. These ingredients can both help protect your skin, but the way they protect your skin is different. Let's take a closer look at each type below.
What Is Mineral Sunscreen?
Mineral sunscreen ingredients act like a shield by forming a physical barrier on the skin’s surface that helps block and scatter harmful rays. According to Dr. Shah, “mineral sunscreens contain physical UV filters that block UV rays by creating a protective film on the skin’s surface to help reflect UV rays before they penetrate the skin.” Currently, the only FDA-approved mineral sunscreen ingredients are zinc oxide and titanium dioxide.2
What Is Chemical Sunscreen?
Chemical sunscreen ingredients work like a sponge, absorbing damaging UV rays before they can harm your skin. ”Chemical sunscreens use ingredients that absorb harmful UV rays and convert them into non-damaging heat through a chemical reaction,” explains Dr. Shah. “This heat is then released from the skin.” Chemical sunscreen ingredients include oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate, and octinoxate.
Mineral vs. Chemical Sunscreen: Which Is Right for You?
So, are mineral sunscreens better than chemical sunscreens when it comes to sun protection? Not exactly. The efficacy of any sunscreen will depend on the product’s formulation. Sunscreens that include SPF 30 or higher and are labeled “broad-spectrum” and “water-resistant” have been proven to help effectively shield skin from both UVA and UVB rays.
Regardless of which option you choose, Dr. Shah advises that “it is also important to use the sunscreen properly, which means applying a sufficient amount and re-applying regularly.” Talk to your dermatologist about any questions you may have when deciding between a physical or chemical sunscreen, and be sure to select a product that you can commit to using correctly every day.
What Are the Benefits of Mineral Sunscreen?
Mineral sunscreens are generally gentler on skin and may be the preferred choice for those with sensitive skin, dry skin, and eczema. This type of sun filter is also used in many baby sunscreens, such as CeraVe Baby Sunscreen Lotion. Like with all skincare products, reaping the full benefits of mineral sunscreen comes down to choosing the right product. Our mineral sunscreens are formulated with three essential ceramides and developed with dermatologists to be fragrance-free and non-comedogenic, meaning they won’t clog your pores.
For a facial moisturizer with SPF, we recommend CeraVe AM Facial Moisturizing Lotion with Sunscreen. This morning skincare multitasker features broad-spectrum SPF 30 and InVisibleZinc™ Technology (micro-fine zinc oxide) that spreads easily, without leaving behind any chalky residue.
What Are the Benefits of Chemical Sunscreen?
Depending on the formulation, chemical sunscreens may be easier to rub into the skin and may also be less likely to leave a white cast. Their non-chalky finish may make them ideal for those with darker skin tones. Those who opt for chemical sunscreens tend to choose them based on their versatility and lightweight texture.
What Is a Hybrid Sunscreen?
Hybrid sunscreens combine both mineral and chemical sun filters in a single sunscreen product to offer the best of both worlds. They combine the benefits of mineral sunscreen with the cosmetic elegance often found in chemical sunscreens. This creates a sunscreen product that is lightweight and blends in seamlessly on all skin tones, without leaving behind any white residue.
For the ultimate hybrid sunscreen option, we recommend CeraVe Hydrating Sheer Sunscreen. Developed with dermatologists, our first-ever hybrid formula with SPF 30 combines mineral (zinc oxide) and chemical sun filters to help effectively reflect and absorb the sun's damaging rays. This ultra-light, water-resistant, and non-greasy formula provides the dual benefits of helping to protect against the sun's harmful rays, while also delivering instant hydration that lasts all day long. It features three essential ceramides and can be used on both your face and body to prime skin for makeup application (without pilling) and leave skin feeling velvety soft and smooth to the touch.
For best results, always apply CeraVe Hydrating Sheer Sunscreen per the instructions on the product label and re-apply every two hours, or as needed after swimming or sweating.
Sunscreen FAQs From Board-Certified Dermatologist Dr. Sejal Shah:
What does “broad-spectrum” mean?
“Broad-spectrum indicates the sunscreen protects against UVB and UVA, both of which are harmful to the skin.”
What does SPF stand for?
“SPF stands for Sun Protection Factor and is a measure of how well the sunscreen protects against UVB, not UVA.An SPF 30 blocks approximately 97% of UVB rays.”
How much sunscreen should I apply?
“You should be using two milligrams of sunscreen per square centimeter of skin, which is about equivalent to a shot glass of sunscreen to the exposed areas of the face and body.”
How much sunscreen should I apply on my face?
“For the face, apply a nickel-sized dollop.”
Do I need to re-apply sunscreen during the day?
“Sunscreen does need to be re-applied to continue working. After about two hours, sunscreen ingredients do not work as well so generally, we advise to re-apply every two hours.”
What about after swimming?
“If you are swimming or sweating, you may need to re-apply more often, as your sunscreen can get wiped away.”
It's also important to note that sunscreen alone cannot completely protect your skin from UV rays—especially when spending extended amounts of time outdoors. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends a comprehensive approach to sun protection that also includes wearing protective clothing (including a hat and sunglasses), seeking shade when possible, and avoiding direct sun exposure between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.4
For help choosing the right products for your specific skin type and concerns, use our Find My Skincare Solution tool.
- “Skin Cancer Facts and Statistics.” The Skin Cancer Foundation, 24 May 2022.
- Center for Drug Evaluation and Research. “Sunscreen: How to Help Protect Your Skin from the Sun.” U.S. Food and Drug Administration, 8 Nov. 2021.
- “Sunscreen FAQs.” American Academy of Dermatology Association, 2022.
- “Tips to Stay Safe in the Sun: From Sunscreen to Sunglasses.” U.S. Food and Drug Administration, 10 Sept. 2021.
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