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Chemical Versus Mineral: How To Find The Best Sunscreen For You

A Phelps Hospital dermatologist weighs in on which type of sunscreen is best when you and your kids are soaking up some sun.
A Phelps Hospital dermatologist weighs in on which type of sunscreen is best when you and your kids are soaking up some sun. Photo Credit: Phelps Hospital

Dear Doctor,

My kids are spending a lot more time outside now that the weather is warmer. I’m seeing some moms switching to mineral sunscreen this year. Should I be using it instead of what I’ve relied on for years?


“Searching for SPF”

Dear Searching:

Kudos to you for being on top of sun protection. Shielding kids’ skin from the sun’s damaging rays is essential: Sunburns during childhood can raise the chance of skin cancer later in life. And sunburns are quite common; between 50% and 60% of kids get one each year.

Aside from keeping kids inside—and who would deprive kids of the chance to play outside in nice weather?—an SPF 30 or higher sunscreen is your best defense.

Here’s what you need to know. Mineral sunscreens, which are also called physical sunscreens, contain minerals that sit on top of and deflect UV rays from the skin, preventing damage. Chemical sunscreens usually contain organic compounds that absorb sunlight like a sponge so it doesn’t cause damage to the skin. The active ingredients in mineral sunscreens are usually zinc oxide or titanium oxide. Chemical sunscreens usually contain oxybenzone and things that end in “-one,” “-ate,” and “-ene.”

Many people are turning to mineral sunscreens because a recent study shows that chemical sunscreens are absorbed by the skin and that trace amounts can show up in the bloodstream. I know this sounds scary, but before you panic you should know that this may mean nothing. It’s similar to how some of your moisturizer gets absorbed by the skin. We don’t know if these trace amounts actually lead to any health problems later in life, and we need to conduct more studies to find out. If you don’t want to chance it, though, you can go with mineral sunscreen to avoid this risk.

There are other benefits to using a mineral sunscreen. It begins protecting against the sun as soon as it’s applied, whereas a chemical sunscreen takes up to 30 minutes to begin working. These products are not perfect, though. They tend to be thicker than chemical sunscreens and leave a white residue on the skin. Chemical sunscreens spread more easily on the skin, and you don’t have to use as much.

In the end, since both protect against the sun equally well, it’s a matter of personal preference. If your kids have sensitive skin, mineral sunscreen might be your best bet. If they’re very active and don’t like to sit still for reapplication, chemical sunscreens that apply faster and easier may work better. The most important thing is that you find an SPF that works for your family and use it every day.