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Some sunscreen is always better than none for sun protection, but for certain skin types, one kind may take the prize.

Are you an avid outdoor enthusiast — or someone who spends as little time outside as possible? Either way, and in any season, sunscreen is crucial in protecting your skin from the sun’s damaging ultraviolet (UV) rays. It not only guards against painful sunburn, but also reduces the risk of premature aging and skin cancer.  

But not all sunscreens are created equal, and abundant options line store shelves. You’ll see terms like mineral, physical or chemical, but what do they actually mean?

“The main difference between chemical and mineral sunscreens is how they filter the sun’s rays,” says Mikael Kevork Horissian, MD, a dermatologist at Geisinger. “While they’re both an effective option for sun protection, the choice between mineral and chemical sunscreens typically comes down to your skin type, sensitivity and personal preferences.” 

What is mineral sunscreen?

Mineral sunscreen, also known as physical sunscreen, creates a physical barrier on the skin’s surface to reflect and scatter UV rays. This barrier helps block UV rays from being absorbed into the skin and causing damage.

This type of sunscreen uses natural minerals, like titanium dioxide or zinc oxide, as its active ingredients.  

What is chemical sunscreen? 

Chemical sunscreen, on the other hand, works by using just that — chemicals — to protect your skin from the sun’s rays. Instead of physically blocking UV rays like mineral sunscreen, it works like a sponge, absorbing UV radiation and converting it into non-damaging heat through a chemical reaction to reduce sun damage. Your skin then releases the heat. 

Common ingredients found in chemical sunscreens include avobenzone, oxybenzone, octinoxate, octisalate, dioxybenzone and homosalate. 

Mineral vs. chemical sunscreen: Which is right for you?

Each type of sunscreen has a unique set of benefits and drawbacks. 

Chemical sunscreen benefits

People often like chemical sunscreen because of its lightweight, easy-to-apply formula. It blends seamlessly into the skin without leaving any white residue. 

Chemical sunscreen drawbacks

However, chemical sunscreen tends to wear off more quickly. That means you have to reapply it more often, especially if you’re swimming or sweating a lot. It can also take up to 30 minutes to be absorbed into the skin to be effective. And if you have sensitive skin, chemical sunscreen could cause irritation or an allergic reaction. 

Mineral sunscreen benefits

There’s no waiting period for effectiveness with mineral sunscreen — it protects your skin as soon as you apply it. And it’s generally well-tolerated by all skin types, making it ideal if you have sensitive skin, dry skin or eczema.

“Mineral sunscreens are generally preferred by dermatologists because if applied correctly, they literally form a separation between your skin and the sun,” says Dr. Horissian. “With instant protection and a lower likelihood of breaking down in sunlight compared to chemical sunscreens, mineral sunscreen is a safe, effective option for sun protection.” 

Mineral sunscreen drawbacks

A disadvantage of mineral sunscreen: It tends to be thicker, making it harder to apply evenly. And it can leave behind a white, chalky residue on the skin, which may not be appealing particularly if you have a darker skin tone. 

Are chemical sunscreens safe?

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not labeled either type of sunscreen as unsafe. However, there is growing concern over common ingredients in chemical sunscreen that are absorbed into the bloodstream and their impact on a person’s health.

A study recently published in JAMA revealed the amount of chemicals absorbed into the bloodstream is significantly above the FDA’s threshold for waiving added safety trials to determine possible toxicity. 

“This study does not mean that chemical sunscreens are unsafe, but rather more conclusive research is needed to determine if there are any effects on a person’s health,” explains Dr. Horissian. “Current medical literature suggests that the known health risks of UV exposure far outweigh the potential risk of chemical absorption from this type of sunscreen.”

The bottom line? The effectiveness and safety of any sunscreen depend on several factors. 

Look for sunscreen that: 

  • Has an SPF of 30 or higher
  • Is water-resistant
  • Is labeled broad spectrum to protect against UVA and UVB rays 

If it has all these qualities, it’s proven to effectively protect the skin from sun damage, as long as you apply it generously and reapply it every two hours, or as directed.

More sun safety tips

Sunscreen alone can’t fully protect your skin from the sun’s UV rays, especially if you’re outside for long periods of time. Besides generously applying and reapplying sunscreen — whether mineral or chemical — follow these other sun-safe practices for optimal protection:

  • Avoid peak hours in the sun, between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.
  • Wear sun-protective clothing with a UPF (ultraviolet protection factor) of 50 or higher, as well as sunglasses and a wide-brim hat.
  • Stay in the shade whenever possible.

“By following sun safety practices and making whatever sunscreen you choose a part of your daily routine, you can enjoy the outdoors all summer long while keeping your skin healthy and well-protected,” says Dr. Horissian.

Next steps: 

Learn about skin care at Geisinger
Here’s how to treat a sunburn
Get to know the warning signs of skin cancer

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