Staying savvy about what you put on your skin is a smart move, but don’t necessarily let the word “chemical” trigger your alarms. Most sunscreens contain chemicals—natural or synthetic—and others feature a combination of both. Like most cosmetics, sunscreen can’t always be easily broken down into “chemical” and “natural” categories, but you can certainly explore each item’s contents—and your options—to better understand what’s going on your skin.
Chemical vs. Physical
The two most distinct categories of sunscreen are chemical and physical. “Natural” isn’t necessarily the best word to describe either, since in general chemicals can be lab-made or nature-found (though not in practice when it comes to sunscreen chemicals) and physical sunscreen ingredients don’t make the “organic” cut. Let’s break it down. Most modern sunscreens feature laboratory-made carbon compounds that chemically absorb the sun’s UV rays. Physical sunscreens, on the other hand, use the minerals zinc oxide or titanium dioxide to reflect sun rays from your skin. These mineral creams used to be known for the white residue they left behind, but nowadays many are processed so they go on clearer, or at least sink in after a few minutes without the whitened tone.
Although mineral-based sunscreens are inorganic, minerals have a rich history of skin care uses and are typically safe. Make sure your physical sunscreen features coated minerals, which helps to stabilize the ingredients. Likewise, stick to creamy mineral sunscreens rather than the spray-on alternatives. Spray products pose the risk of inhaling mineral particulate, while creams often pack the perk of added moisturizers.
Antioxidants & Inactive Ingredients
While no single, all-natural ingredient has been known to block harmful UV rays, they can work in conjunction with chemical or physical sunscreen ingredients to reduce sun damage. Keep an eye out for natural ingredients that help ward off the effects of UV rays, such as free radical–fighting antioxidants vitamin E, grapeseed derivatives, quercetin and green or black tea leaves. When it comes to decoding your product labels, keep an eye out for inactive ingredients, which can make up about half of the average container of sunscreen and can contain allergens. Common ingredients that cause issues include oxybenzone and the preservative methylisothiazolinone.
When it comes to sunscreen, one statement garners no debate: Wear it daily and reapply it every few hours. Daily use of sunscreen slows down the skin’s aging process and encourages firmer, less wrinkled and more pliable skin. Stay youthful with an SPF of 30 or above, and choose a broad-spectrum product, which blocks the different types of UV rays responsible for sunburn, premature aging and skin cancer. When it comes to your morning routine, always apply sunscreen after all your other skin care products and before your makeup.