There has long been a debate surrounding sunscreen, namely, which type of sunscreen is best: chemical or physical. Both fulfill their purpose of protecting skin from damaging sun exposure, but they do so in different ways. Chemical sunscreens absorb UV rays so the skin can't (no absorption means no sunburn). Physical sunscreens, on the other hand, rely on mineral ingredients that scatter and deflect dangerous rays away from the skin.
Neither of these two types of sunscreen is necessarily better than the other, though dermatologists usually recommend physical sunscreen for anyone with sensitive skin. Take it from dermatologist Tina Funt, MD, of Schweiger Dermatology Group, who says that "physical sunscreens are not necessarily safer, but they will cause fewer allergic reactions." This is because minerals like zinc oxide take the place of other potentially irritating ingredients found in chemical counterparts. Dermatologic surgeon Dendy Engelman, MD, calls physical sunscreens "great for people with sensitive, acneic, and rosacea skin." Yeah, that sounds like us.
Keep reading to see seven expert-recommended zinc sunscreen products!
California-based dermatologist and CEO of Curology, David Lortscher, MD, likes this mineral formula from Byrdie-favorite French pharmacy brand La Roche-Posay. It has a matte finish and doesn't leave a white cast on the skin (which is something that many physical sunscreens do since they sit atop the skin). "An ideal sunscreen would provide uniform protection across the range of ultraviolet B light and ultraviolet A light," Lortscher says. "Protection against visible light may be additionally helpful for those who have photosensitivity diseases and for some people with melasma, a hormonally induced pigmentation that is triggered by sun exposure."
This sunscreen is completely mineral-based and naturally sourced, which is why it's great for baby-sensitive skin. Lortscher recommends this one, along with Neutrogena Sensitive Skin Sunscreen Lotion Broad Spectrum SPF 60+ ($9), which is basically the adult version of the product. People who experience redness or rosacea swear by this formula for its gentle effectiveness.
Another recommendation from Lortscher, this SPF 30 cream is lightly tinted so it "basically acts like makeup while protecting your skin." The tint refines the look of skin and also helps to prevent a white cast after application. This product, in particular, is formulated with 17% zinc oxide, along with antioxidants like vitamin C, "which can work to limit skin damage caused by UV penetration and have also been shown to protect against IRA." IRA stands for infrared A; it's a different portion of the light spectrum that "has been identified as having the potential to damage skin, contributing to skin cancer development, and resulting in accelerated skin aging, e.g., wrinkled, sagging, and leathery skin." Yikes. You can officially count us in on antioxidant sunscreens!
This pick from Tizo is another tinted formula. It's water resistant and made without fragrance, oils, chemical agents, or parabens. So, yes, even those who have wildly sensitive skin might find their sunscreen soul mate with this one.
This product "provides protection from both the sun and pollutants. The formula contains antioxidants including idebenone to protect skin against free radicals. Bonus: This weightless formula has a universal tint to blend flawlessly into all skin tones," says Engelman. As for damage prevention, she recommends reapplying "sunscreen approximately every two hours or after swimming or sweating since the sunscreen can be rubbed off."
This dermatologist-approved pick from European brand ISDIN is formulated with 11% zinc oxide. "The ultralight emulsion is easily spreadable and instantly absorbs into the skin, forming a protective smart pro-shield," says Engelman.
If you do get sunburned, Engelman says not to panic. She has some expert tips. First, "rinse with cool/lukewarm water (if it's your whole body, consider a diluted apple cider vinegar bath). Then, load up on antioxidants to neutralize the free-radical exposure." Finally, follow up with Bio-Oil ($13) for a body burn or Elizabeth Arden Advanced Ceramide Capsules ($78) for a burned face. Both are "packed with vitamin A and E, which work with the skin to promote cell regeneration." Finally, avoid any extra sun exposure or makeup. She cautions that using makeup can further inflame the sensitive, irritated skin.
Funt likes Elta MD products for sun protection. This one is formulated with 9% zinc oxide as well as moisturizing agents for dry skin. "It is important to use at least a number 30 sunscreen and apply it every three to four hours," she says. "A higher sunscreen will stay on longer but must still be reapplied no longer than four hours."
Keep in mind that unless you have an allergy to chemical sunscreens, they're completely safe to use. In fact, there are benefits to chemical formulas, too. According to Lortscher, chemical sunscreens don't leave a white cast behind. Plus, they're usually much easier to rub in. "Since they each have their pros and cons, many of today's sunscreens contain both physical and chemical UV filters," he says.
Engelman agrees that both are completely safe. And actually, depending on when you apply, layering both types of sunscreen together is the best way to prevent damage. "To make sure that they're adequately protected, I always advise my patients to apply a layer of chemical sunscreen 30 minutes before heading out into the sun." This is because chemical formulas take up to 30 minutes to activate. So if you don't apply ahead of time, apply a mineral sunscreen on top, since they work immediately.
Next up, read about the crazy new drug that can prevent sun damage in a major way!