Chemical Or Mineral Sunscreens? A Look At Which One Is Best!

Feature photo by on Unsplash

It is almost that time for us in the Northern Hemisphere when we all start dreaming of the sun, whether that is on holiday (I wish), or simply in your backyard. Experts say that it is extremely important that you use broad-spectrum (UVA & UVB) sun protection (as well as taking the usual precautions of avoiding the sun when it’s at its highest, and using the shade) and an appropriate factor – never under factor 15. So, what should I be looking out for? Are chemical or mineral sunscreens better? And why is some sunscreen not ‘eco’ or ethical?

Basically, sunscreens tend to fall into two different camps depending on how they work – either using chemicals or minerals. Both forms of sunscreen are safe for humans if applied in the correct manner and protect humans from the sun’s harmful rays. Chemical sunscreens tend to rub in much more nicely and don’t come off so easily in water or when you sweat, whereas mineral ones do often leave white marks on the surface of the skin due to their active compounds zinc oxide and titanium and need applying more regularly. After this intro, I know what you are thinking! Job done – I know what I’ll use, I don’t want white marks on either my or my children’s skin, and applying them regularly is a PAIN! But wait, what chemicals do they use, what impact does that have?


Photo by Joshua Alfaro on Unsplash

Chemical or mineral sunscreens?

Chemical sunscreens contain compounds like octocrylene, oxybenzone, octinoxate & avobenzone amongst others including the normal nasties parabens, phthalates & triclosan. They work by basically absorbing the UV rays and changing them so that they come out as infra-red rays. Sounds pretty good, however, there are numerous reasons why chemical sunscreens can cause problems. 

The first is that they can cause reactions on sensitive skin (sunscreen caused burns article) and these reactions can be particularly bad on children & those with skin conditions such as Eczema. It is really important that if you decide to use a chemical sunscreen that you check the ingredients and use a child-specific sensitive one for children (and one that is designed specifically for that age group). 

The second reason is that multiple studies have shown that chemical sunscreens can cause bleaching in coral, and on the 1st January 2020, the

Pacific Island State of Palau banned certain chemical sunscreens due to the fact that they increase bleaching in coral reefs. Hawaii is following suit. Bleaching happens when the coral polyps expel the algae that live inside their tissues, and the chemicals released by sunscreen aid this process as they are taken in by the coral as nanoparticles and then disrupt the coral’s reproduction and growth cycles. You don’t need to actively be near coral for this to apply – simply having a shower or spraying it on the beach is enough!


Chemical or mineral sunscreens? Which one is better?
Photo by Tobias Tullius on Unsplash

The third reason is that many chemical sunscreens (particularly those with avobenzone) can react with chlorinated water to create more harmful chemicalsSunscreen, when it washes off, also disrupts the chemical balance of the pool making it cloudy and increasing the stinging sensation you get from chlorine as you tend to have to add more in to get the pH right. 

There are obviously downsides to mineral sunscreens, in order to create an easy to apply non-whitening cream, they have to use nanostructures. These have raised concerns with many as they therefore can be absorbed into the body (as in the case of diesel fumes) and cause stress on our cells. One of the main problems is that much to do with this technology is unknown. Nanoparticles obviously exist naturally however, until recently haven’t been produced synthetically commercially until relatively recently (Ethical Consumer Magazine).

Which should I buy?

So what do I buy? Ethical Consumer Magazine always recommends buying organic and vegan if possible as they automatically don’t have most of the nasties within them and also using a precautionary approach to use those that haven’t used nanotechnology. Using Ethical Consumer as a guide, here are five sunscreens that I have tried and liked that also rate highly:


  1. Odylique Sunscreen
  2. Green People Sunscreen (I have used their children’s sunscreen for years and rate it very highly)
  3. Badger Sunscreen
  4. Neal’s Yard Sunscreen
  5. Weleda Sunscreen


Others that rate extremely highly (but I haven’t tried yet) are: Shade, Malibu, and Organii.

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