As a mom of two little ones, it’s safe to say that most days begin with a new brand of chaos. But for the mornings when the journal and yoga mat gather dust, I can still win the day with one powerful marker for success: applying my go-to sunscreen. I know sunscreen is the most important part of any skincare routine (especially when it comes to cancer prevention and premature aging). And now that I’ve achieved the baby step of adding SPF to my mornings, it’s time to drill down the different types of sunscreen—and exactly which one suits my skin best.
Sunscreen is divvied up into one of two categories: chemical or mineral (also known as physical)—but what’s the difference? Is one truly better than the other? To understand how different types of sunscreen might affect my skin, I turned to Dr. Alexis Parcells, a board-certified plastic surgeon and founder of SUNNIE, a clean, cruelty-free, and medical-grade skincare line.
Feature image by Michelle Nash.
What’s the difference between chemical and mineral sunscreens?
According to Dr. Parcells, both types of sunscreen work to protect the skin from sun damage and decrease your risk of skin cancer. So, what’s the difference? “Chemical sunscreens use active ingredients that absorb sun rays and release them as heat through the skin,” she shares. And while chemical sunscreens absorb to protect, mineral sunscreens remain on the barrier of your skin. “Mineral, or physical, sunscreens consist of active ingredients that form a physical barrier against the sun’s rays,” notes the MD.
Which type of sunscreen is best for my skin type?
When it comes to choosing between chemical and mineral sunscreens for your skin type, it’s unlikely that a one-size-fits-all answer exists. But Dr. Parcells can certainly point us in the right direction. “The two major factors that contribute to breakouts are pore occlusion and a sensitivity to the chemical-blocking UV ingredients,” she says. “For this reason, mineral sunscreens are preferable for acne-prone or sensitive skin.” Additionally, look for sunscreens labeled oil-free or non-comedogenic to prevent pore blockage.
Which type of sunscreen offers the best protection?
It turns out the best type of sunscreen in terms of protection actually just comes down to one thing. “The key here is compliance,” Dr. Parcells reveals. “Find a formula that works for you, and stick to it.” In terms of what to look for, she suggests SPF 40+ for ideal protection throughout the day—and don’t forget to reapply every two hours when you’re swimming or exercising.
Another thing to look out for? Expiration dates. “Sunscreen needs to work correctly to protect your skin. When you purchase your sunscreen, write your date of purchase on the bottle to avoid expiration. The FDA requires that the manufacturer make the products remain stable for three years. If your sunscreen has been left out in the sun, smells, or appears chalky, throw it out.”
How to Decide Between the Different Types of Sunscreen
No matter your skin type, it seems that mineral sunscreen takes the lead in the runnings—and not simply due to its prevention against harmful UVA and UVB rays. The National Ocean Service claims chemical sunscreens contain ingredients harmful to corals and other marine life and the American Academy of Dermatology is paying attention. Recently, the AAD has “come to favor mineral sunscreens over chemical ones due to their adverse environmental effects,” Dr. Parcells shares. “Additionally, there have been some recent recalls of chemical sunscreens and potential concerns of certain chemicals acting as endocrine disruptors, though this is debatable at this time.”
Best Types of Sunscreen Based on Your Skin Type
Mineral sunscreens contain zinc oxide or titanium oxide which, historically, created a thick and goopy product with a strong smell. “But more modern formulas are easier to apply and tolerate makeup application smoothly.” Meanwhile, common chemical ingredients include benzones or salates which “tend to be lighter and have more of a sheer effect.”
The key here is compliance. Find a formula that works for you, and stick to it.
And modern products can do a lot more besides simply providing your daily dose of SPF. “These days, sunscreens have secondary cosmetic benefits and come in tinted formulas that can also help hydrate skin. And some products combine chemical and physical components.” The final word? Find what works for you and apply it every single day. “A proper application will prevent burns. Getting into the habit of applying daily will keep skin protected and hydrated.”
Ahead, a few favorite selections among both types of sunscreen to get you in the habit.
EltaMD’s oil-free mineral sunscreen has a cult-like following for good reason. The easy-on formula relies on lactic acid to keep pores clear. No breakouts to see here.
We know that sunscreen is a powerful anti-aging agent, but SUNNIE takes it one step further with the addition of antioxidants and hyaluronic acid to prevent fine lines and wrinkles. Plus, the sunscreen and moisturizer combination make this one an ideal gentle product for sensitive skin.
Oily skin, be gone. Supergoop! is always and forever a hard yes thanks to its clean and thoughtful formula. But the Mineral Mattescreen provides ultimate shine control for oily-prone skin. It goes on unbelievably smooth and leaves your skin feeling soft and primed for the day.
Concerned about dry skin in the summer? Your best bet is to choose a sunscreen combined with a serum. The addition of hyaluronic acid in Tatcha’s Silk Screen keeps skin hydrated and sets the foundation for an even texture.
SkinCeutical’s Sheer Physical Defense is a beloved product for nearly all skin types. It dries to a beautiful matte finish as it creates a barrier against UVA and UVB damage—perfect for daily use.
Can a sunscreen truly be weightless and scent-free? You bet. Supergoop! created what was once the impossible in Unseen Sunscreen, a gel-like formula that disappears into your skin—yet still leaves behind the perfect grip for makeup. An excellent type of sunscreen for combination skin.
Solara sent me a sample of this (NEW TO TARGET!) sunscreen and I’ve been using it on the daily, specifically for blue light defense. I’m a genuine fan. It goes on super light and while it does take a second to absorb, it doesn’t leave a white cast. It feels great with or without makeup—and it’s nice to know I can sit in front of my computer fully protected.
Finally, my personal go-to sunscreen for under makeup is bliss’ Block Star. It’s a mineral sunscreen that leaves zero white cast—because it’s actually tinted. However, the tint doesn’t affect the color of my skin, it just makes for perfect blending. A lightweight, non-greasy sunscreen for all skin tones and all skin types.