Here's everything you need to know about how mineral-based products compare to chemical formulas, according to derms—plus how to navigate your next trip down the sunscreen aisle.
During summer, the only question more important than "Which way to the beach?" is "Did someone bring sunscreen?" Skin cancer is no joke: Rates of melanoma have been on the rise for the last 30 years, and the Mayo Clinic recently reported that two types of skin cancer rose a jaw-dropping 145 percent and 263 percent from 2000 to 2010.
While we know sunscreen helps protect against skin cancer, you may be protecting your skin way less than you think by unknowingly choosing the wrong formula. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) recently released their 2017 annual sunscreen guide, rating roughly 1,500 products advertised as sun protection for safety and efficacy. They found a whopping 73 percent of the products didn't work very well, or contained concerning ingredients, including chemicals tied to hormone disruption and skin irritation.
Their researchers point out that even though most people focus on a high SPF, what they should really be looking at is the ingredients in the bottle. The brands least likely to have potentially harmful or irritating compounds typically fall into a category called mineral-based, or "natural," sunscreens.
Apparently, a lot of you are already curious about the category: A 2016 Consumer Reports survey found that nearly half of the 1,000 people surveyed said they look for a "natural" product when shopping for sunscreen. But can natural sunscreens really match up to the protection provided by chemical formulas?
Surprisingly, two dermatologists confirm that they in fact can. Here's what you need to know.
What's In a Mineral Formula?
The difference between traditional, chemical-based sunscreens and the mineral variety comes down to the type of active ingredients. Mineral-based creams use physical blockers—zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide—which form an actual barrier on your skin and reflect the UV rays. The others use chemical blockers—typically some combination of oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate and/or octinoxate—which absorb UV radiation to dissipate it. (We know, it's a mouthful!)
There are also two types of UV radiation: UVB, which is responsible for actual sunburns, and UVA rays, which penetrate deeper. Mineral-based, physical blockers protect against both. But since chemical blockers absorb the rays instead, this allows UVA to reach those deeper layers of your skin and do damage, explains Jeanette Jacknin, M.D., San Diego–based holistic dermatologist and author of Smart Medicine for Your Skin.
The Problem with Chemical Blockers
The other biggest concern with chemical blockers is the idea that they disrupt hormone production. This is something animal and cell studies have confirmed, but we need more research on humans to tell us how it functions specific to sunscreen (how much of the chemical is absorbed, how quickly it's excreted, etc.), says Apple Bodemer, M.D., professor of dermatology at the University of Wisconsin.
But studies on these chemicals, in general, are alarming for a product we're supposed to spread on every day. One chemical in particular, oxybenzone, has been linked with a higher risk of endometriosis in women, poorer sperm quality in men, skin allergies, hormone disruption, and cell damage—and oxybenzone is added to nearly 65 percent of the non-mineral sunscreens in the EWG's 2017 sunscreen database, Dr. Jacknin points out. And a new study out of Russia published in the journal Chemosphere found that while a common sunscreen chemical, avobenzone, is generally safe on its own, when the molecules interact with chlorinated water and UV radiation, it breaks down into compounds called phenols and acetyl benzenes, which are known to be incredibly toxic.
Another worrisome chemical: retinyl palmitate, which may trigger the development of skin tumors and lesions when used on skin in sunlight, she adds. Even on a less alarmist page, oxybenzone and other chemicals tend to cause problems with skin reactions and irritations, while most minerals don't, Dr. Bodemer says—though she adds that this is mostly just an issue for adults with sensitive skin and kids.
So Are All Mineral-Based Creams Better?
Mineral-based creams are more natural, but even their cleaner ingredients go through a chemical process during formulation, Dr. Bodemer clarifies. And a lot of mineral-based sunscreens have chemical blockers in them, too. "It's not uncommon to find a combination of both physical and chemical blockers," she adds.
That being said, since we know so little about what chemical blockers really do in our bodies, both experts agree your best bet is reaching for mineral sunscreens with physical blockers, especially if you have sensitive skin.
The superior protection does come at a superficial price, though: "One big downside is that many natural sunscreens with high concentrations of zinc and titanium dioxide are very white and not cosmetically pleasing," Dr. Jacknin says. (Think surfers with the white stripe down their nose.)
Luckily, most manufacturers have counteracted this by developing formulas with nanoparticles, which help the white titanium dioxide look more transparent and actually offer better SPF protection—but at the cost of worse UVA protection, says Dr. Jacknin. Ideally, the formula has a balance of larger zinc oxide particles for greater UVA protection, and smaller titanium dioxide particles so the product will go on clear.
What to Look For
While mineral sunscreens are typically better for your skin, how much better really depends on what else is inside. Just like with food packaging, the word "natural" on the label really holds no weight. "All sunscreens have chemicals in them, whether they're considered natural or not. How natural they are really depends on the brand," Dr. Bodemer says.
Look for sunscreens with active ingredients zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. You'll probably find the best selection at an outdoor store or specialty health food shop, but even ubiquitous brands like Neutrogena and Aveeno have mineral-based formulas. If you can't find these on the shelf, next best is avoiding ones with the chemicals that science says are most harmful: oxybenzone, avobenzone, and retinyl palmitate. (Pro tip: If you have sensitive skin, look for bottles labeled for kids, Dr. Bodemer shares.) As for the inactive ingredients, Dr. Bodemer recommends looking for bottles labeled "sport" or "water resistant" rather than a specific base, as these will stay on longer through sweat and water. And while most of us are taught to look for SPF, even the FDA calls high SPF "inherently misleading." The EWG points out it's far more effective to apply a low SPF sunscreen properly than a higher one half-heartedly. Dr. Bodemer confirms: Every sunscreen will wear off, so no matter the SPF or active ingredients, you need to reapply at least every two hours. (FYI here are some sunscreen options that stood up to our sweat test.)
And although it might be more of a hassle to put on, you're better off sticking to lotion—those nanoparticles that minimize chalkiness are generally safe, but could cause lung damage if you inhale them from a spray formula, Dr. Jacknin adds. Another important application FYI: Because mineral sunscreen protects by forming a barrier, you want to lather up 15 to 20 minutes before you head out—before you start moving and sweating—to ensure you have an even film across your skin once you hit the sun, Dr. Bodemer says. (For the chemical kind, put it on 20 to 30 minutes pre-sun exposure so it has time to soak in.)
The EWG rates every brand of sunscreen for efficacy and safety, so check out their database to see where your favorite formula falls. A few of our favorite brands that meet the guidelines of these derms and the EWG: Beyond Coastal Active Sunscreen, Badger Tinted Sunscreen, and Neutrogena Sheer Zinc Dry-Touch Sunscreen.
Remember though that in a pinch, any type of sunscreen is better than no sunscreen. "We know UV radiation is a human carcinogen—it definitely causes non-melanoma type skin cancers, and burns in particular are strongly associated with melanoma. Going out in the sun has a much higher likelihood of causing cancer than putting sunscreen on your skin," Dr. Bodemer adds.