Mineral or synthetic sunscreen – what's better?

Mineral vs. synthetic sunscreen ingredients

The research is clear: we all need to wear sun cream every day, come rain or shine, to prevent both premature ageing and skin cancer. But what if you don’t like wearing sun cream, even though you know you should? Perhaps, in the past, you feel like your sun cream has caused breakouts, irritated your skin or left an unpleasant look or feel. These are all valid concerns but the solution isn’t to ditch sun protection altogether, we promise.

Finding a formula that works for your skin type is the key to protection. It can take some experimentation to find something that works for you, so it's helpful to understand the differences between sunscreen ingredients – what they are, how they work and how they feel.

The two types of ingredients in sun cream are mineral and synthetic. Both are equally protective. Mineral or synthetic ingredients can be included in formulas created for any skin type. For example, if you have normal to oily skin, there are weightless, non-greasy options; if you have normal to dry skin, you can find skin-smoothing, hydrating SPF products.

Which type of sunscreen is the best?

The differences aren't about which type is more effective; rather, it comes down to personal preference and whether your skin is sensitive, as mineral sunscreen ingredients are considered the gentlest options.

  • Mineral sunscreens: There are only two mineral sunscreen ingredients: titanium dioxide and zinc oxide. They work in the skin's uppermost layers to both absorb and (to a lesser extent) deflect and scatter the sun’s harmful rays. These mineral ingredients are sometimes referred to as physical sunscreen ingredients or physical blockers, although that’s not a factual representation of how they work.
  • Synthetic sunscreens: There are over 30 synthetic sunscreen ingredients, all of which absorb into the top layers of skin, where they work similarly to mineral SPF ingredients: by scattering and deflecting the sun’s harmful rays and by converting UV rays into heat and “deactivating” them. (Don’t worry, you won’t feel a thing.) Common synthetic sunscreen ingredients include oxybenzone, octinoxate, octisalate and avobenzone. These are sometimes labelled “chemical sunscreens,” which is both misleading and false. All skincare ingredients are chemicals – even water.

A common sunscreen myth

In the world of skincare, mineral sunscreen ingredients are often referred to as "organic". In the world of science, mineral sunscreen ingredients are actually inorganic chemicals. We're here to tell the truth so that misleading marketing terms don't influence your skincare choices.

It’s important to know that there’s nothing inherently better or worse about formulas containing either mineral or synthetic sunscreen ingredients. What matters is that they protect your skin from sun damage. Yes, one or the other may be a better choice for your skin type, but the ingredients themselves should make that determination – not the marketing buzzwords used to sell them.

Which sun cream is the best?

As we said, the right sun cream for you is the one you’ll look forward to applying daily. It should be rated SPF 30 or higher and provide broad-spectrum protection to prevent damage from the sun’s damaging UVA and UVB rays. Beyond that, to make an informed choice, you need to know how your skin type responds to different sunscreen ingredients and textures: those containing mineral actives, synthetic actives or a combination of both.

Mineral sunscreens:

  • Begin to work immediately on application but must be absorbed to be most effective and to ensure they don’t wipe off on clothing
  • Have almost no risk of irritating skin
  • Do not penetrate past the skin's uppermost layers
  • May leave a white cast, especially on darker skin tones but the best mineral sunscreens have an almost sheer finish
  • May need more careful, liberal application because of the way they work in formulas

Synthetic sunscreens:

  • Begin to work immediately on application but must be absorbed to be most effective and to ensure they don’t wipe off on clothing
  • Are generally found in products with thinner textures
  • Tend to be preferred for water-resistant formulas because they don’t turn milky-looking when you sweat or get wet, however, as with any sunscreen, you must reapply often
  • Can be sensitising for those with extra-sensitive skin
  • Can penetrate the skin and be absorbed in small amounts that are not shown to have health risks

Whichever sun cream you choose, it’s crucial to use it year round. Even if you think the sun won't burn your skin, daylight – even through clouds – will age the skin and increase the risk of skin cancer. Scary but true: the sun’s UVA rays pass through windows! You won’t feel the damage but it’s happening nonetheless.

Which Paula’s Choice Skincare SPF products are the best for my skin?

We can’t stress enough the importance of protecting skin daily with a moisturiser, primer or foundation (better yet, all three) rated SPF 30 or higher; which is why we’ve created a range of light-feeling, skin-nourishing SPFs for every skin type – all designed to help maintain your skin’s healthy appearance. It may take a bit of experimenting to find the formula for you, but the results will be well worth the effort.

If you’re prone to sensitivity or redness, try our mineral SPF moisturiser created for compromised skin, or if you prefer the texture of synthetic sun cream, try our Advanced Sun Protection Daily Moisturiser SPF 50. If your primary goal is anti-ageing, we’ve got you covered with a mineral-based wrinkle defence SPF.

If a mineral sunscreen doesn't seem like the best choice for your skin type or if you're looking for an extra-sheer SPF moisturiser for oily or ageing skin, one of our synthetic formulas will be your best bet. For those with signs of ageing who prefer an even higher SPF rating and synthetic sunscreen ingredients, we recommend either our RESIST Skin Restoring Moisturiser SPF 50 or RESIST Youth-Extending Daily Hydrating Fluid SPF 50. Finally, if you already have an SPF moisturiser you love, or want the added protection of layering sun cream, try our SPF 30 Primer.

Is Paula's Choice sunscreen mineral?

Our SPF skincare covers both mineral and the synthetic options. Below, we list our mineral and our synthetic sunscreen products.

Paula's Choice products which contain mineral sunscreen:

Paula's Choice products which contain synthetic sunscreen:


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References for this information:

    Science, February 2015, pages 842–847
    Annals of Internal Medicine, June 2013, pages 781–790
    Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology, January 2013, pages 16–26
    British Journal of Dermatology, February 2010, pages 415–419; and April 2007, pages 716–719
    Indian Journal of Dermatology, Venereology and Leprology, volume 73, number 2, 2007, pages 80–85

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