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What Actually Is The Difference Between Chemical and Mineral SPF?

11th June 2024

We all know we need to wear SPF every day (right?), but that doesn’t mean that choosing the right sunscreen feels any easier. In fact, it’s basically a minefield. So, as summer approaches and the risk of the sun’s rays causing both sunburn and premature ageing only increases, we’ve created a really simple cheat sheet answering one of the most common SPF questions: what actually is the difference between chemical and mineral SPF?

The short answer: it’s the ingredients, but you don’t have to be a cosmetic chemist to make your choice. Here’s what you need to know to make choosing the right sunscreen formula for you that little bit easier.

Firstly, the confusing myth…

You may have heard it said that the main difference between chemical and mineral sunscreen is that chemical sunscreens work by using filters which absorb the sun’s UV rays, so they don’t penetrate and cause damage to your skin. Mineral (or physical) sunscreens are said to block and then reflect the rays away from your skin’s surface.

However, in reality, mineral sunscreens still absorb around 90 per cent of UV rays (they just reflect the other 10 per cent) – something the cosmetic scientist Dr Michelle Wong (@labmuffinbeauty) explains particularly neatly on her social media channels.

So what actually is the difference?

The real difference between chemical and mineral sunscreens is the UV filters that they use to protect your skin from the sun. Without getting too technical, mineral sunscreens use inorganic ingredients – more specifically metal oxides – with the two main ones being titanium dioxide and zinc oxide. Chemical UV filters are ‘organic’, aka carbon-based, and you may have heard of avobenzone or the more controversial oxybenzone.

That’s why, if you are wondering whether your sunscreen is chemical or mineral, your best option is to have a quick scan of the ingredients list and check for an ‘ide’ or and ‘zone’.

Okay, but the science is confusing – what does that mean in practice?

The most important thing about that difference in ingredients? It changes the look and feel of the sunscreens, so it influences your experience using them.

Chemical sunscreens tend to be lighter weight (and seem to be getting even more so with every new chemical filter). This means they don’t tend to feel as ‘heavy’ or ‘smothering’ on the skin, and they can try to avoid the tell-tale white cast associated with some SPFs. However, some people can be allergic to chemical filters; there’s a risk that formulas make your skin look ‘shiny’; and there are also concerns that some of them may cause environmental issues, including coral bleaching.

Mineral sunscreens have a drier, matte (and thicker) texture, which can be a positive or a negative thing depending on how dry your skin naturally is. These formulas are more frequently recommended for sensitive skins – as they are less likely to cause an allergic reaction – and are considered reef-safe, but they do tend to have a whiter cast (due to their ingredients) or rely on a tint to cover this.

Which one is better?

As you can now probably guess, the debate around whether chemical or mineral sunscreens are better really comes down to personal taste. It’s about finding a formula that you find comfortable enough to wear – and then wearing it every day. Also, make sure it is a high factor (SPF30 and above) and broad spectrum – which means it protects against both UVA and UVB rays – both things that will be indicated on the packaging.

If you still can’t quite decide, there’s an increasing range of formulas that combine chemical and mineral filters too – known as ‘hybrid sunscreens’. These might be a good place to start if you want to find the best of both worlds between the two.

Our favourite mineral sunscreens:

Heliocare 360° Mineral Tolerance Fluid SPF 50, £31, BUY NOW

Our favourite chemical sunscreens:

Heliocare 360º Water Gel SPF50, £31, BUY NOW

Our favourite hybrid sunscreens:

Intradermology Synergy 6 NX-Gen SPF 50, £49, BUY NOW

Heliocare 360° A-R Emulsion, £32.99, BUY NOW

Heliocare 360º Oil-Free Gel, £24.99, BUY NOW

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