With recent controversies about the safety and effectiveness of both natural and chemical beauty products, we asked some experts for their advice on choosing the right sunscreen.

We may have grown up using Banana Boat. Still, with questions swirling about the ingredients in many chemical-based beauty products, more and more often concerned sunbathers are seeking natural or chemical-free alternatives. But are they safe, and is there really a difference? We tapped some experts for answers.

We asked Dr. Debra Jaliman, a dermatologist based in New York City, and Dr. Kally Papantoniou, a dermatologist based in Fresh Meadows, New York, to weigh in and give us the facts on the great sunscreen debate.

Debra Jaliman, MD, Dermatologist and WebMD Contributor
Debra Jaliman, MD, Dermatologist and WebMD Contributor

Q: What is the difference between chemical-based and physical or natural sunscreens?

DJ: The ingredients in chemical sunscreens have to bind with the outer layers of your skin; they absorb the UV rays so your skin doesn’t. There is a chemical reaction to activate the UV rays. Physical/natural sunscreen reflects or scatters the UV rays away from the skin.

Q: Are there any health hazards consumers should be wary of?

DJ: Avobenzone, also called Parsol 1789, can degrade in UVA light. Any sunscreen containing this ingredient should be kept out of the sun because it can be less effective. Some sunscreens contain retinal palmitate, which can make you sun-sensitive. This ingredient should be avoided as well.

Q: Which kind of sunscreen is better, chemical-based or natural?

DJ: I prefer physical [natural] sunscreens because they don’t have irritating chemicals. If you have sensitive skin, the ingredients in physical sunscreens won’t cause a reaction.

Q: What products would you recommend?

DJ: My favorites are the Elta MD sunscreens. The UV Physical and UV Pure are great options because they don’t have irritating chemicals. The Coola Organic Face Mineral Sunscreen SPF 30 Matte-Tint Unscented is also great because it contains 3.2 percent titanium dioxide and 1.8 percent zinc oxide.

Dr. Kally Papantoniou, MD, Dermatologist
Dr. Kally Papantoniou, MD, Dermatologist.

Q: Which is better, chemical-based or natural sunscreen?

KP: Patients will often ask whether they should be using a chemical-based sunscreen or a natural sunscreen, and some ask whether they should use sunscreen at all.

The answer is always to use sunscreen. Sunscreen has been proven to reduce the incidence of skin cancers, including melanoma, in large studies. The Skin Cancer Foundation is a great source which addresses many of the concerns with sunscreen and helps to debunk many of the controversies and studies which have challenged the use of sunscreen.

For more sensitive skin and for children, I would suggest considering zinc-based sunscreens. Zinc covers the full UVA/UVB spectrum and is more stable under prolonged sun exposure.

Chemical sunscreen agents can break down more easily and can be more irritating to the skin. I recommend zinc-based sunscreens because they are natural and provide great protection from the sun.

Chemical vs. Mineral Sunscreen: What’s the Difference?

Chemical or Natural Sunscreens
Chemical or Natural Sunscreens: Which Provides Better Skin Protection?

When choosing between natural and chemical sunscreens, both have pros and cons. Natural sunscreens, or mineral sunscreens, use physical blockers like zinc oxide or titanium dioxide to reflect UV rays off the skin. 

Chemical sunscreens, on the other hand, use chemical filters like avobenzone or oxybenzone to absorb UV rays and convert them into heat. Here are some key points to consider:

Pros of natural/mineral sunscreens:

  • They are less likely to cause skin irritation or allergic reactions.
  • They are generally considered safer for the environment, as they do not contain chemicals that can harm marine life.
  • They provide broad-spectrum protection against both UVA and UVB rays.

Cons of natural/mineral sunscreens:

  • They can be more difficult to apply and may leave a white cast on the skin.
  • They may not be as effective as chemical sunscreens in protecting against UVA rays.
  • They may not be as water-resistant as chemical sunscreens.

Pros of chemical sunscreens:

  • They are generally easier to apply and blend into the skin.
  • They are more effective at protecting against UVA rays.
  • They are more water-resistant than natural/mineral sunscreens.

Cons of chemical sunscreens:

  • They may cause skin irritation or allergic reactions in some people.
  • They may contain chemicals that can harm marine life and damage coral reefs.
  • Some chemical filters, like oxybenzone, have been linked to hormone disruption and other health concerns.

Both natural/mineral and chemical sunscreens can effectively protect against the sun’s harmful rays. The best choice for you will depend on your individual needs and preferences. It’s important to choose a sunscreen with at least SPF 30 and to reapply it every two hours or more frequently if you are swimming or sweating.

So what’s the verdict? Look at the ingredients when you’re buying your sunscreen. Look out for any products that could be dangerous, and if you can, opt for a natural formula.

Written by Emily Gregor

Leave A Reply