Sunscreen 101: Minerals Vs. Chemicals

la roche-posay sunblock
Flickr photo by las ...
With all the talk about sunscreen lately, both from a recent sunscreen review making news and with Memorial Day's summer kick-off just days away, I thought it would be a good idea to look at some of the most common ingredients in sunscreens to help you decide the brand that's best for you.

Because that's really what it's all about ... the sunscreen that best fits your individual needs.

Here's something about sunscreen you probably didn't know: It was first invented and developed by the government to prevent serious sunburns caused by the sun's UVB rays on aircraft carrier crews.

It was never intended for daily use by regular people to screen the deeply penetrating and far more dangerous UVA rays that cause cancer and wrinkles -- which is largely how it's marketed today.


That's part of the reason there are so many complaints, questions, and concerns about the effectiveness of the products, most recently from the Environmental Working Group in its 2010 Sunscreen Review. According to the group, only 39 out of 500 sunscreens on the market are safe and protect you the way they should. Plenty of experts feel the sunscreen report is misleading.

It's true that currently sunscreen makers aren't accountable to the government for backing up a product's UVA-blocking capabilities, and the EWG and many other public health and medical experts have accused the FDA of dragging its feet on developing testing measures. These measures should clear up a lot of the confusion.

Back to the ingredients, because that's another critical part of the EWG's review. It ranked its recommended sunscreens based on products that both screen UVA rays and are mineral-based, meaning they don't contain chemicals.

The big winner in the review is Badger Sunscreen, because it's all-natural and organic and contains the mineral zinc-oxide, the ingredient shown to absorb the most UVA rays on the spectrum out of other mineral and chemical sunscreen ingredients.

That won't work for me because I don't want a whitish film over my face, which is what you often get from zinc-based screens. I use a product containing mexoryl, which is a chemical and the second best UVA screener in the group. It's built into my daily moisturizer, is lightweight and clear, and doesn't cause break-outs.

Other common sunscreen ingredients, in order of their ability to screen out rays on the UVA spectrum, include:

Avobenzone -- Chemical

Titanium Dioxide -- Mineral

Octinoxate and Octisalate -- Chemical

Oxybenzone -- Chemical, the most commonly found ingredient and most scrutinized after certain studies linked it to cell damage and possibly cancer.

I shun the sun, wear hats, and cover up when I'm outside, so for me, a SPF 15 in my moisturizer is all I need for daily use, chased by a sensitive skin face stick in SPF 30 when I'm exposed for longer periods of time.

Not everyone uses sunscreen for the same purpose. Some like them thicker, some like them thinner, some like a high SPF, some don't need that much. Luckily there are enough sunscreens on the market to find the one that suits you best so you'll actually wear it. Because, really, that's the most important thing of all.

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