It’s that time of year. The sun is shining. The weather is warm. Who doesn’t want to be outside? But being outside more means that you need to up your sunscreen protection. And who hasn’t stood in the sunscreen aisle at the store and been completely overwhelmed with the options? How do you find the best one?
The first decision I make is based on the sunscreen ingredients. There are two kinds of sunscreen ingredients: inorganic sunscreens, or mineral filters, and organic sunscreens, or chemical filters. Don’t let the inorganic or organic labels confuse you. Mineral filters are generally considered the “natural” sunscreen, because the minerals occur in nature. Both types of sunscreen ingredients protect from UVA and UVB damage, but they do it in completely different ways. Mineral sunscreens (inorganic) work by deflecting UV rays away from the skin, essentially acting as a mini-mirror. Chemical filters (organic) work by absorbing the UV rays and neutralizing them before they can hit the living layers of the skin and cause damage.
Although both types of sunscreens are approved by the FDA, there are pros and cons to each.
Chemical filters work by neutralizing UV damage in the very uppermost layers of the skin (the stratum corneum). Chemical sunscreens have had the most controversy in the last few years. Originally they were the most effective forms of protection. Now, we know that they are more likely to cause adverse reactions and allergies in reactive skin types. Although we don’t always know why sunscreens cause allergic reactions, there is some speculation that, because chemical sunscreens release small amounts of heat as they neutralize UV rays, more reactive skin types might be overstimulated by this and more likely to react.
These seem like overwhelming negatives, so why would you choose a chemical sunscreen? The simplest answer is that even with all the negatives, they are still effective at protecting the skin. They are easier to formulate with and can be used for lightweight products. They are easy to apply and do not feel as greasy. They also do not create the blue tint on deeper skin tones that mineral sunscreens can cause. If your preferences lie in formulation, you may prefer a chemical sunscreen.
Mineral sunscreens use the ingredients titanium dioxide and zinc oxide. They are typically less likely to cause reactions because they lay on the surface of the skin instead of penetrating to the deeper layers, making them inert. Additionally, zinc oxide is a known anti-inflammatory and can soothe irritated skin.
Mineral sunscreens are reflective, and I believe they provide better protection against pigmentation. UV rays are deflected before they have a chance to cause damage.
Unfortunately, with mineral sunscreens, formulations generally turn out thicker and creamier. If you are a dry skin type, this may be fine for you. But oily and acne prone types may find it difficult to find a mineral sunscreen that is lightweight. Darker skin tones may also have complaints; mineral sunscreens are famous for leaving a blue, ashy cast. Because the minerals are white, they can be difficult to blend.
Here’s a breakdown of what skin type may prefer which kind of sunscreen ingredient:
Oily skin types
Acne prone skin types
Deeper skin tones
People who prefer lighter textures
Dry skin types
Reactive or allergic skin types
Pigmented skin tones
People who prefer natural ingredients
People who like creamier textures
After you’ve decided which ingredients are right for you, you’ll need to pick your number. SPFs go up to 100 these days, but an SPF of 30 is 97% effective when used correctly. Keep in mind that higher SPFs require a higher chemical load, as it becomes more difficult to formulate high SPFs with titanium dioxide and zinc oxide. Allergic or sensitive types may find it difficult to use sunscreens with high SPFs for this reason.
Which one is right for you?
Now the million dollar question: which sunscreen is right for you?
My preference is to use a strictly mineral sunscreen, but it may be difficult to find a mineral sunscreen that is only mineral. Many formulations that use a mostly mineral sunscreen may still include some chemical filters simply because it keeps the product lighter. Often I will layer my sunscreens and use a mineral powder on top to get as much protection as possible while still keeping textures light.
Ultimately, the most important step in sunscreen is the application part, so make sure to buy one that you will use. The sunscreen that protects you best is the one that is on your skin, not in the drawer. [Tweet this!]