Chemical vs. Mineral Sunscreens

Time to get investigate-y.
Publish date:
June 9, 2014
summer, sunscreen, loreal, minerals, sunblock, chemical, coola, mineral sunscreen, natural

I have had a long love affair with sun protection. It all started in high school when a summer jaunt to the beach with the cooler, older girls left me red as a steamed lobster and in so much pain I was unable to stand, sit, or lay down anywhere that wasn’t under a stream of freezing cold water.

Shortly thereafter, I saw Moulin Rouge. Real talk: I became obsessed with Moulin Rouge and vowed to protect my precious pale skin so I could be sparkly like Satine.

Long story short, I bought TWO copies of the movie (because that was necessary) and I’ve been a pasty shade of white ever since.

Over the years, I've tried every type of sunscreen there is: spray, stick, goop. Some made me smell like a mermaid princess, some burned my eyes and skin, and many caused me to sweat shocking white droplets.

I never really gave the experiential differences in sunscreens much thought until I got into health and wellness and heard a lot of people warn against the dangers of sunscreen. Many told me that sunscreen is “toxic,” and that only unhealthy bodies were susceptible to sun damage. I was told as long as I was living off of spirulina, green juice, and good vibes, I only needed a coat of virgin coconut oil to protect my skin from the sun. Needless to say, my bullshit meter flew off the charts.

Knowing ultra-violet radiation from the sun ages the skin and causes skin cancer, I was never willing to bet my skin health on healthy living. Even though I refused to go off of sunscreen, all of these extremist anti-sunscreen conversations led me to an investigation of what I was lathering on my body daily.

Sunscreen turns out to be pretty complicated. There are 17 different FDA approved sunscreens in the US--15 are chemicals that absorb UV rays and two are minerals that reflect UV rays. Different skin cancers are caused by different UV light, so it’s important to be covered by a broad-spectrum sunscreen. Sun exposure without UVA filters can lead to melanoma.

Many of the FDA-approved sunscreen ingredients have their complications. oxybenzone has been linked to low female birth weights by the Center for Disease Control and is an endocrine disruptor according to the Environmental Working Group. Several other chemical sunscreens (as well as many cosmetic ingredients) are also thought to be endocrine disruptors, meaning they mimic hormones in our bodies and can potentially cause damage to the system.

For my present experimental purposes, I decided to compare several sunscreens that, chemical or mineral, I knew I would use every last drop of by midsummer.

First, I picked two sunscreens intended for the face: L’Oréal Silky Sheer Face Lotion 50+ (my chemical choice) and Coola Mineral Sunscreen Cucumber Matte Finish (my mineral choice).

The L’Oréal sunscreen contains avebenzone, homosalate, octisalate, octocrylene, and the aforementioned oxybenzone, while the Coola sunscreen contains both titanium dioxide and zinc oxide along with lots of organic, healthy things, like shea butter and primrose oil.

The runnier chemical sunscreen stung my skin a bit, but left it feeling silky and not gooey at all. I absolutely adored the matte finish of the Coola mineral sunscreen. Although it's pricey, it is absolutely worth it because it has the same texture and finish as a makeup primer.

So why not just choose two of the mineral sunscreens out there--zinc oxide and titanium dioxide? The original sunscreens were made of zinc, which just sat bright and white on your skin, so no one would want to wear them. To make mineral sunscreens more appealing and usable, they're now developed with zinc oxide nano-particles. There's a lot of debate on whether nano-particles like this and in other cosmetics get absorbed into the skin. The danger with any cosmetic nano-particles--chemical or mineral--being absorbed by the skin is an increased risk of free radical or DNA damage, as well as lowered UVA protection.

After reading through a vortex of contradicting studies, I decided I needed the advice of an expert or two on the subject, lest I end up in a dark cave, fearing exposure while clutching a jar of coconut oil.

First, I spoke to clinical and research dermatologist Dr. Jeannette Graf. Not only is she an expert on skin and aging, her approach to improving skin health includes nutrition and balancing the body's natural pH.

After dropping some mind-blowing truth bombs on me (even in the shade you're still 40% exposed to the sun), putting my mind at ease (vitamin D supplementation is preferable and more effective than daily sun exposure), and confirming my bullshit meter accuracy (coconut oil and green juice work synergistically with a proper sunscreen, not as replacements to protect you from skin cancer), we got into the nitty gritty of what I should be putting on my skin.

Dr. Graf recommends mineral sunscreens but, according to her, both mineral and chemical sunscreens are safe and preferable to coconut oil. She told me nano-particled zinc tends to clump together on the surface of the skin and is not absorbed into the system, and the advanced wearability of micronized mineral sunscreens today make them her go-to choice.

I beamed like an A+ student when Dr. Graf told me her favorite sunscreen was the exact one I have been using for the past year, EltaMD UV Clear Broad Spectrum SPF 46, which combines zinc oxide with oxinate, a chemical UV absorber. I started using this sunscreen a few years ago when my laser hair removal technician recommended it to me.

I decided to compare two sunscreen sprays: A mineral-based spray from EltaMD and a chemical sunscreen spray recommended by Dr. Graf, Neutrogena Fresh Cooling Spray with Helioplex.

The chemical sunscreen sprays on clear while the mineral sunscreen sprays on white and dries clear. I like the idea of seeing if I’m covering every spot, but the EltaMD spray is very wet and I’ve always had to rub it in for it to fully dry, kind of defeating the purpose of the spray.

After wrapping up with Dr. Graf, I knew I needed the input of our very own Kevin the Chemist! Kevin told me his personal preference was also a combination of mineral and chemical protection, like the EltaMD formulation.

On the subject of the dangers of chemical sunscreens, Kevin said,

“In my opinion I truly believe that chemical sunscreens are safe to use and are a great thing to protect yourself from a real cancer threat... the sun.”

Kevin also gave me some simple wisdom about picking out the ideal sunscreen, “If you don't like the feel, you won't wear it. Also note that, in general, the higher the SPF, the stickier and heavier the feel. So it's better to buy what feels comfortable (because you'll actually wear it) and just reapply when needed.

It seems the most important factor in choosing a sunscreen is just picking one out and wearing it consistently. Unless you’re a true night owl or a real-life vampire, you need to be protecting your skin from the sun.

What's your sunscreen of choice? Is it chemical or mineral? How's the wear?