Mineral vs. Synthetic Sunscreen Ingredients

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 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 sensitising 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.

Which Paula’s Choice Skincare SPF Products Are Best for My Skin?

We can’t stress enough the importance of protecting skin daily with a moisturiser, primer, or foundation (better yet, all three) with SPF; which is why we’ve created a range of light-feeling, skin-nourishing sunscreen products for every skin type—all designed to help maintain your skin’s healthy appearance. It may take a bit of experimenting to find the formula your skin prefers, but the results will be well worth the effort.

If you’re prone to breakouts or tend toward redness, try one of our lightweight mineral moisturisers with SPF, created for oily, dry, and aging skin. If a mineral sunscreen doesn’t seem like the best choice for your skin type, or if you’re looking for an extra-sheer SPF moisturiser for oily or aging skin, one of our chemical/synthetic formulas will absolutely fit the bill. For those with signs of aging who prefer an even higher SPF rating and synthetic sunscreen ingredients, we recommend either our RESIST Skin Restoring Moisturiser or RESIST Youth-Extending Daily Hydrating Fluid. Finally, if you already have an SPF moisturiser you love, or want the added protection of layering your sunscreen, try our SPF primer.

References for this information:
Science, February 2015, pages 842–847
Annals of Internal Medicine, June 2013, pages 781–790
Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology, January 2013, pages 16–26
British Journal of Dermatology, February 2010, pages 415–419; and April 2007, pages 716–719
Indian Journal of Dermatology, Venereology and Leprology, volume 73, number 2, 2007, pages 80–85


About the Experts

Paula Begoun is the best-selling author of 20 books about skincare and makeup. She is known worldwide as The Cosmetics Cop and creator of Paula’s Choice Skincare. Paula’s expertise has led to hundreds of appearances on national and international radio, print, and television including:

The Paula's Choice Research Team is dedicated to busting beauty myths and providing expert advice that solves your skincare frustrations so you can have the best skin of your life!