Most of us don't think deeper than the surface when it comes to our skin. When we smear on sunscreen, we don't often consider the effects of what occurs below the surface of our skin. Understanding the fundamental difference between chemical and mineral sunscreens will allow you to make more informed choices about what you're applying to your skin.
Chemical sunscreens create a protective barrier designed to absorb UV rays.
Mineral sunscreens create a protective barrier designed to reflect and scatter UV rays.
Chemical absorbs and mineral reflects. That is the core difference. Both are designed to protect your skin from UV damage. Now that we have the fundamental difference down, we can delve into the details.
About 20 minutes after application, sun exposure causes a chemical reaction that transforms UV rays into heat before releasing from the skin. Remember, before a chemical sunscreen can offer any protection, your skin has to absorb the rays. There are two major drawbacks to this design:
Drawback 1. The protective barrier of chemicals gets ‘used up’ and weakens under direct UV light. Unless constantly reapplied, gaps in the chemical barrier will allow UV light to come through. Increasing the concentration of chemicals increases the amount of UV rays absorbed and released from the skin (aka a higher SPF count) and reduces the chance of UV rays penetrating your skin. This can only be taken so far: Increasing the concentration (SPF) increases the risk of skin irritation, especially for sensitive skin types.
Your options end up being a sun barrier that absorbs UV rays and degrades quickly when in direct sunlight, or, a higher concentration (SPF) that results in skin irritation and redness.
Drawback 2. Negative effects are associated with the use of the chemicals commonly found in chemical sunscreens . For the chemical sunscreen to work, your skin has to absorb UV rays before they can be released as heat. Along with the UV rays, your skin is also absorbing the chemical compounds in the chemical sunscreen that make up the protective barrier. Below is a list of common chemical UV filters used in chemical sunscreens and their studied effects.
Common chemical sunscreen compounds
Avobenzone: The most common chemical found in chemical sunscreens. It is an unstable ingredient, meaning it degrades rapidly in sunlight. The degradation of this compound on the skin can cause skin allergies.
Octinoxate: Absorbs rapidly into the skin. It is a known endocrine (hormone) disruptor that can alter thyroid function.
Octisalate: Permeates into the skin. Although it helps absorb UV rays, it makes your skin more susceptible to other potentially harmful chemical ingredients. If a chemical sunscreen contains toxic ingredients, they are more likely to pass into the body if octisalate is present.
Oxybenzone: Absorbs UV rays, but is a photosensitizer, meaning it increases the body’s production of free radicals, which are unstable molecules that can damage the cells in your body, upon sun exposure. It has been measured in breastmilk, urine and blood plasma, suggesting developing fetus and newborns may be exposed to this substance. It has been implicated as a hormone disruptor, and may affect the production of estrogen in the body.
Octocrylene: Absorbs UV rays, but like oxybenzone, it increases the production of free radicals after sun exposure.
While the human health implications of chemical sunscreens are quite concerning, the problems don’t end there. Approximately 14,000 tons of sunscreen are thought to wash into our marine waterways each year when we swim or shower. Chemical sunscreens pose a hazard to small marine organisms. The formulas contain nanoparticles that can disrupt coral’s reproductive and growth cycle. Major toxic effects from sunscreen chemicals found in developing coral are susceptibility to bleaching, DNA damage, abnormal skeleton growth, and gross deformities of baby coral. Hawaii prohibits the sale of any sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate (two ingredients commonly found in chemical sunscreens) because of the massive negative impact on coral reefs and other marine life.
Mineral sunscreens are designed to sit on top of your skin (rather than seeping in, like a chemical sunscreen) and protect you by reflecting and scattering UV rays. These products contain titanium dioxide and zinc oxide. These two ingredients are currently the only two active ingredients that are considered safe and effective for sunscreen use by the FDA. These ingredients provide two major functions for sun protection.
Function 1. They are photostable, meaning exposure to UV radiation doesn’t change their molecular structure and they won’t falter under direct sunlight.
Function 2. They are naturally broad spectrum ingredients, meaning they provide protection against both UVA and UVB rays immediately after application.
Sensitive and acne-prone skin
For those with heat-activated skin, such as rosacea and redness, mineral sunscreens are ideal since they deflect heat away from the skin. They are less likely to clog pores and irritate complexions, also making them ideal for acne-prone or sensitive skin. Zinc oxide (the main ingredient in many mineral sunscreens) is hypoallergenic, and can be produced as a lightweight and transparent formula, while providing skin conditioning to moisturize the skin.
Mineral sunscreens utilize nontoxic alternatives (such as zinc oxide) that are critical for protecting reefs. To be truly reef safe, mineral sunscreen must be “non-nano.” “Non-nano” means the particles must be greater than 100 nanometers in size. While a nanoparticle will enter your bloodstream, a non-nano particle can’t due to its size. This also makes it indigestible to corals. For that reason, mineral sunscreens must be non-nano to be considered safe for the environment.
To wrap up
As sunscreen use increases worldwide, so do the levels of environmental, wildlife, and human exposure. Our mission is to provide a socially responsible, broad spectrum sunscreen with no harmful chemicals that is effective, safe for the entire family, and safe for the environment. Amavara Skincare offers the protection you need without subjecting your skin and the environment to harsh side effects.
The benefits of mineral sunscreen
It reflects and scatters the rays from the sun before they penetrate the skin.
Does not irritate the skin and is known to be safe for sensitive skin types.
Does not clog pores because it does not penetrate deeply into the skin.
Limits rosacea and redness by deflecting heat from the skin.
Works immediately upon application.
Protects the skin from environmental aggressors (i.e. pollution).
Now you are armed with the information you need to choose the best sunscreen to keep your skin and the environment protected. You can learn more about Amavara Skincare products, how we protect ourselves and our reefs, here.