There is a lot of confusion about chemical vs physical sunscreens and which is better for our skin protection, our health and the environment.
We asked Dr Scott McGregor, We Are Feel Good Inc.Co-Founder and Skin Cancer and Cosmetic Physician to help us understand the differences and find out which might be the better choice for our skin.
What are the key differences between mineral and chemical sunscreen?
Mineral and Chemical are the two broad categories within sunscreen. Inorganic, or mineral sunscreens generally use zinc oxide and/or titanium as the filters and can tend to be heavier or greasier than organic or chemical sunscreens, however, both sunscreens work in the same way.
A common misconception is that sunscreens containing physical UV filters, like zinc and titanium somehow create a shield to reflect the light. All sunscreens work by settling on the skin and then absorbing UVA and UVB rays and converting them to heat. Zinc probably “reflects” only 5-10% of UV rays, and that is only the old fashioned, coloured zinc. Modern invisible zincs reflect very minimal amounts of UV rays.
What are the pros and cons of mineral and chemical sunscreen?
The facts are there are no perfect UV filters. Zinc Oxide alone(inorganic filter) is what will be found in most mineral sunscreens. It is a fantastic UVA and UVB filter but cannot provide the same protection that you will achieve with a sunscreen using multiple filters. It also tends to feel thicker and greasier on the skin, which can make it uncomfortable to wear.
Chemical filters tend to be absorbed easier and feel lighter on the skin, which can make them more preferable for everyday use. But when it comes to UV filters and sunscreens, a formula with a combination of the two is usually best to achieve maximum coverage, but in saying that, the best sunscreen is the one that you will want to wear every day!
Is one sunscreen safer than another?
Sunscreens are considered a medicinal product in Australia and many other countries, which means they are very tightly regulated, so any sunscreen with a registered TGA licence number in Australia is safe. There is no such thing as “more safe” as any ingredient considered in any way unsafe cannot be used in Australia. This is a complex and confusing area, with many companies using misleading marketing terms such as “safe”, “natural” or “organic”, all terms which have very little meaning when applied to sunscreens.
Consumers should be assured that all sunscreens registered in Australia are “safe” and simply focus on buying a product that you will want to wear. In saying that, any ingredient in sunscreen may cause local skin reactions, including inorganic and organic filters, and even additives, so, it’s recommended you do a patch test first and if you have sensitive skin, choose a sunscreen that has been tested for sensitive skin.
Do chemical sunscreens cause harm/pollute the environment?
Facts are that sunscreens are not even on the list of top 100 reef damaging concerns. Coupled with that, there is now evidence that Zinc Oxide may well be one of the worst UV filters for reef systems, and this is what most “reef safe” brands will say they use. In saying that, the science on all this is just not there yet, and often very flimsy.
In my opinion, there are brands making money out of greenwashing and fear marketing. This is not the way to save our reefs. Looking at everything else you use at home, put on your garden, pour in your car etc. will have more of an impact.
(ele note – we know this is a very passionate subject for many of us, to ensure we minimise our environmental impact. We suggest you make sure thoroughly researching this topic to find out more to help inform your opinion).
Are both chemical and mineral sunscreens safe to use during pregnancy?
Sunscreen which has been approved by the TGA is safe to use during pregnancy. If you are worried, it’s advised to speak to your doctor. During pregnancy, your skin can be more sensitive, so it’s important to cover up, and you may want to switch to a sunscreen that has been specially formulated for sensitive skin types.