Mineral vs. Chemical Sunscreen: Dr. Liia Shares How to Navigate Your Search

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Sun's out! Which sunscreen should you opt for?

In the 1998 hit song of the same name, Baz Luhrmann reminded us that “Everybody is Free to Wear Sunscreen.” While it rings true today that everyone is free to (and should) wear sunscreen year round to protect their skin, choosing the most effective and safest sunscreen can be challenging.

There are many options in the market, and not all sunscreens offer the same level of protection or ingredient makeup. How does a consumer navigate their search with all of the options available? How is one to know the healthiest and safest options? By looking at ingredients, safety information, and new information about skincare, consumers can make the best sunscreen decision for their skin.

Chemical Sunscreen

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The summer of 2021 was not a good season for chemical sunscreen manufacturers. A study by Valisure revealed that certain sunscreens contained chemicals linked to certain cancers. In the study, 78 different sunscreens were found to contain benzene, a well-known human carcinogen and a highly-flammable chemical that is a component found in crude oil, gasoline, and cigarette smoke. It is used to make plastics, nylon, and other synthetic products, and can be found in products like pesticides and lubricants. As the study found, it is also a part of the chemical makeup of many popular sunscreens.

It has been proven and documented by the Centers for Disease Control that long-term exposure to benzene can lead to leukemia. Although, in the past few decades, there has been a call from the medical community and beauty experts alike for daily sunscreen use. Even in colder climates, protecting one’s skin from the sun can help stave off skin cancer and the sun’s effect on aging. With the increased daily use of sunscreen, however, more people have prolonged benzene exposure, putting them at risk.

The products that were tested in the Valisure study were contaminated with benzene, which is almost bound to happen in manufacturing settings that include the use of lubricants and other products that include benzene.

Benzene is not the only harmful chemical to be found in certain sunscreens. Octocrylene is another chemical that can lead to cancer after prolonged exposure and was recently found in 2,400 different sunscreen products. Oxybenzone, which is used as an effective UV ray protectant in chemical sunscreens, has also been flagged as a potentially-problematic ingredient by the FDA.

While studies and research into chemical-based sunscreens continue, the findings thus far could be cause for concern. In 2018, Hawaii banned sunscreens that include chemicals like oxybenzone because of their cancer-causing properties and their potentially-harmful effects on coral reefs and marine life.

In addition to the safety concerns with chemical sunscreens, ingredients such as avobenzones, benzophenones, oxyphenones, methoxycinnamate and para-aminobenzoic acid (PABA) can lead to breakouts, which is not something you want to worry about on top of sun damage.

The cat is out of the proverbial bag for harmful chemical sunscreens. So, what should consumers seek out in terms of an alternative?

Mineral Sunscreen

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Medical experts and skincare experts find that mineral sunscreens are the healthier alternative to chemical sunscreen products. Mineral sunscreens started to hit the market in the 1980s, beginning with products including the mineral zinc oxide, which works wonders with sun protection and chapped or peeling skin. Mineral sunscreens include two active ingredients: zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, which are the only two active ingredients considered relatively “safe” by regulating authorities like the FDA.

Mineral sunscreens also include natural, tried-and-true ingredients in their sunscreens. Many of these natural ingredients have been used as sun protection for generations. Sunflower oil is an excellent example of an ingredient that has been relied on for hundreds of years for its moisturizing properties, as well as the protection it offers from damaging UV rays.

Mineral sunscreens are best for people with acne concerns or sensitive skin, and are typically gentle enough on the skin that they are the sunscreen of choice for babies. Mineral sunscreens are also just as effective as chemical sunscreens. Nevertheless, their use and development still have a way to go to match the popularity of their chemical-laden counterpart. Currently, mineral sunscreens only account for 3.4% of the total sunscreens on the market.

Making the Best Choice for Your Skin

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Today, consumers have more access to any type of skincare available. E-commerce sites and small beauty and skincare startups regularly bring innovative, healthy products to the market. Many sites will even provide in-depth chemical and health information about their products.

Consumers should seek out sunscreen products that are medically clean and hypoallergenic. Many companies now offer gluten-free skincare options as well, including sunscreen products.

My recommendation is that people seek out a mineral/natural sunscreen with a lower SPF and reapply often. If possible, choose the water based, non-oily type of sunscreen.

Sunscreens are an absolute must if you’re spending any amount of time outdoors. Consumers should do ample research into sunscreen ingredients and choose safe, healthy products to give them — and their skin — the utmost in protection.

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