Two quick notes:
- synthetic SPFs are often referred to as chemical SPFs (I.E, mineral vs. chemical) but that's misleading, because mineral SPFs also contain chemicals (FYI, every skincare product contains chemicals - water is a chemical.)
- Mineral SPFs are often referred to as organic (I.E organic vs. chemical) but that is also misleading, because the ingredients in mineral SPFs are actually inorganic chemicals.
Welcome to the world of marketing, where misleading terms are used to influence our purchasing decisions. Don't worry, because I'm about to break down everything you need to know about these sunscreens so that you can make an informed decision that's best for you. Let's jump in.
Why SPF matters
From an aesthetic perspective, sunscreen protects your skin from signs of aging including hyperpigmentation & fine lines/wrinkles (read more about that here) while also protecting your skin barrier & helping to ward off breakouts.
From a health perspective, sunscreen is key in protecting your cells from UV-induced DNA damage, helping to prevent skin cancer. You can read more about SPF & skin cancer here.
There is no safe amount of UV exposure, and to protect your skin you should wear a broad-spectrum SPF 30+ every single day, rain or shine.
Okay, great - you know to wear SPF. Now what?
Finding your SPF BFF
The best sunscreen is the one that you will wear every day, so your SPF BFF is the one that has ingredients that work best for your skin type. Not sure of your skin type? Read this!
There are two types of sunscreen ingredients: mineral and synthetic. Both are equally protective when properly formulated, and both can be formulated into products for every skin type.
Mineral SPF is considered the best option for sensitive skin. There are two mineral ingredients: titanium dioxide & zinc oxide. They both work in skin's uppermost layer to absorb & deflect UV rays. Many mineral products (but not all!!) may leave a white cast, especially on darker skin tones. Some have a tint to offset the white cast. These products tend to be thicker, so require more careful, liberal application to get adequate sun protection.
Synthetic sunscreens absorb into the top layers of skin, increasing the likelihood of irritation for those with sensitive skin. They can generally be found in thinner, lighter formulas and are preferred for water-resistant products. There are many synthetic sunscreen ingredients, but the most common are avobenzone, octinoxate, octisalate & oxybenzone.
*Note: there is a lot of misinformation about whether synthetic ingredients can cause health issues. As of this post, studies have found that the amount that gets absorbed through the skin is low enough that there is no substantial health risk. It's an undisputed fact that unprotected sun exposure does cause a health risk - skin cancer. Synthetic SPF is far safer than no SPF but if you want to err on the side of an abundance of caution, I recommend choosing a mineral SPF.
Which SPF is best?
The best sunscreen is the one that you'll wear every day. There is nothing inherently better or worse about either mineral or synthetic sunscreen ingredients - many products are even formulated with a combination of both!
What matters is that your sunscreen product protects your skin from UV damage. Keep in mind that SPF refers to UVB rays specifically, so look for one labeled broad-spectrum protection of 30+ to make sure you have UVA coverage as well.
Both mineral and synthetic SPF need to be absorbed to be most effective - I recommend letting it sit for 10-15 minutes after application before getting dressed or going outside.
Other ways you can protect your skin: wear UV protective clothing, avoid tanning beds, & get regular skin check-ups to stay on top of any changes.
A quick caveat: in terms of skin health and protection, mineral vs. synthetic are on an even playing ground (except for those with sensitive skin). In terms of environmental health, however, mineral ingredients tend to outperform synthetic ones. Not all synthetic ingredients pose an environmental risk, but I recommend doing your due-diligence to make sure you're purchasing/using reef-safe products. Mother Nature cares for us, and we need to care for her, too.
A final note about sunscreen: In addition to being the most important anti-aging & anti-cancer skincare product, sunscreen is also one of the most difficult to buy. It took me a while to find one that I love, but trust me - your perfect SPF is out there, too. Need some help finding it? I'm here for you!
SPF every day, baby.