Mineral vs. Synthetic Sunscreen Ingredients

The research is clear: You need to wear sunscreen every day, rain or shine, to prevent both skin cancer and skin’s premature aging. But what if you don’t like wearing sunscreen, even though you know you should? Perhaps, in the past, your sunscreen products have caused breakouts, irritated your skin, or left an unpleasant look or feel. Those are all valid concerns, but the solution isn’t to ditch your sun protection.

Rather, it’s to find a formula that works for your skin type as it guards against the insidious damage of unprotected sun exposure. This could take some experimentation, so it may be helpful to understand the differences between sunscreen ingredients—what they are, how they work, and how they feel on skin.

The two types of sunscreen ingredients are mineral and synthetic, and both are equally protective. Further reassuring is that each can be included in formulas created for every skin type. For example, if you have normal to oily skin, there are weightless, non-greasy options; if you have normal to dry skin, it’s possible to find skin-smoothing, hydrating SPF products.

What’s the Difference Between Mineral and Synthetic Sunscreen Ingredients?

Mineral sunscreens: There are only two mineral sunscreen ingredients: titanium dioxide and zinc oxide. They both work by absorbing into the very surface layers of skin and deflecting or scattering the sun’s harmful rays. These mineral ingredients are sometimes referred to as physical sunscreens or physical blockers, although that’s not a factual representation of how they work.

Synthetic sunscreens: There are over 30 synthetic sunscreen ingredients, all of which absorb into the top layers of skin, where they work in two ways: by scattering and deflecting the sun’s harmful rays, and by converting UV rays into heat and “deactivating” them. (Don’t worry, you won’t feel a thing.) Common synthetic sunscreen ingredients include oxybenzone, octinoxate, octisalate, and avobenzone. These are sometimes labeled “chemical sunscreens,” which is both misleading and false. All skincare ingredients, even water, are chemicals.
Interesting fact: In the world of skincare, mineral sunscreen ingredients are referred to as organic, but they aren’t. In the real world of science, mineral sunscreen ingredients are actually inorganic chemicals. Don’t let these marketing terms influence your decisions.

It’s important to know that there’s nothing inherently better or worse about formulas containing either mineral or synthetic sunscreen ingredients. What matters is that they protect your skin from sun damage. Yes, one or the other may be a better choice for your skin, but the ingredients themselves (not the vocabulary used to sell them) should help make that determination.

Which Sunscreen is Best?
As we said, the right sunscreen for you is the one you’ll look forward to applying daily. It should be rated SPF 30 or higher and provide broad-spectrum protection to prevent damage from the sun’s killer UVA and UVB rays. Beyond that, to make an informed choice, you need to know how your skin type responds to different sunscreen ingredients and textures: those containing mineral actives, synthetic actives, or a combination of both.

Mineral sunscreens:

Begin to work immediately on application, but must be absorbed to be most effective and to ensure they don’t wipe off on clothing.
Have almost no risk of irritating skin.
May leave a white cast, especially on darker skin tones, but the best pure mineral sunscreens go on invisibly.
May need more careful, liberal application because of the way they work in formulas. So, go ahead, slather these on for brilliant protection!
Synthetic sunscreens:

Begin to work immediately on application, but must be absorbed to be most effective and to ensure they don’t wipe off on clothing.
Are generally found in products with thinner textures.
Tend to be preferred for water-resistant formulas because they don’t turn milky-looking when you sweat or get wet. But, as with any sunscreen, you must reapply them often.
Can be sensitizing for those with extra-sensitive skin.
Whichever sunscreen you choose, it’s crucial to use it year round. Even if you think you’re not at risk for a burn, daylight—even through clouds—will age skin and increase the risk of skin cancer. Scary but true: The sun’s UVA rays come through windows. You won’t feel the damage, but it’s happening nonetheless.