Chemical v. Mineral Sunscreen (A Skirmish)

Note: this is not a summary. For a summary, read our quick guide on all things related to sunscreen safety. Otherwise, enjoy!

Before we discuss this issue, let’s do a brief primer on the two major types of sunscreen –mineral/physical and chemical. Mineral or physical sunscreen, usually zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, sits on top the skin and protects your skin by both reflecting and absorbing UV rays. Unfortunately, these types of sunscreen tend to be difficult to apply and leave a white film over the skin. Chemical sunscreen is pretty much everything else. It protects your skin by absorbing UV rays. Traditionally, chemical sunscreen had been more popular because it is easily applied and absorbed.

In May 2019, a study raised concerns about the absorption into the blood stream of certain active ingredients used in chemical sunscreens. In January 2020, the FDA published the results of an expanded study into the issue. Between the two studies, scientists evaluated seven common chemical sunscreen ingredients - avobenzone, oxybenzone, octocrylene, homosalate, octisalate, octinoxate, and ecamsule.

As with any scientific studies, there are many caveats, but the basic takeaway is that the ingredients in the studies were absorbed into the bloodstream and remained in the body for extended periods of time, even after one application. However, what this means is unclear because absorption does not mean harm. For example, we absorb oxygen into our bloodstream, but that doesn’t hurt us in any way. The FDA is requesting additional information/studies to better understand and evaluate the long-term effects on humans of the absorption of active ingredients in chemical sunscreens.

Meanwhile, the recommendation from doctors and experts is to keep on using sunscreen. If you feel uncomfortable using chemical sunscreens, use ones with zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. There are some options now that apply relatively well, and for BIPOC, some are tinted to provide less ghostly coverage. But all agree that using any sunscreen is better than not using sunscreen at all (unless you physically cover your body), because of the previously mentioned fact that sun is definitely carcinogenic, while the effects of absorption of sunscreen ingredients is undetermined.

The exception is if you are pregnant or breastfeeding. Many experts (but not all) suggest staying away from chemical sunscreens and using physical ones instead during this period, because fetuses and babies are more vulnerable and sensitive to various chemicals than an adult, and it is best to avoid the risks until there is more information.

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