Experts Discuss the Pros and Cons of Different Sunscreen Types

Sunscreen is a daily essential for many people, with a wide variety of products available for purchase. Walk into any local drugstore and you’ll find chemical and mineral formulas in just about every SPF level and format imaginable, from creams to sprays to sticks.

So which one should you pack for your beach trip this summer? Here’s guidance from dermatologists on how to choose.

What are the differences between chemical and mineral sunscreens?

There are two primary types of sunscreen: chemical and mineral (also called physical) formulas. While they both prevent sunburns and other skin damage from UV radiation, they achieve this in different ways.

Mineral sunscreens containing titanium dioxide and zinc oxide form a physical barrier on top of the skin that reflects UV light. Chemical sunscreens feature active ingredients that absorb into the skin and soak up UV rays “like a sponge,” explains Dr. Raman Madan, chief of dermatology at Glen Cove Hospital in New York. Common chemical components in the U.S. include chemicals such as homosalate, oxybenzone, avobenzone, octinoxate, octisalate, and octocrylene.

Is chemical or mineral sunscreen better?

Many consumers prefer chemical formulas because they blend into the skin smoothly, whereas mineral sunscreens can leave a chalky white residue. But that residue signifies these products’ longevity; mineral formulas tend to last longer than chemical sunscreens, says Dr. Abel Torres, chair of the University of Florida College of Medicine’s dermatology department. “If you know you’ll be at the beach all day, mineral may be a wiser choice since you won’t need to reapply it as frequently,” he notes.

Those with acne-prone skin may also benefit from a mineral sunscreen, since , Torres notes. Sensitive skin types may also tolerate mineral formulas better, Madan says, because—unlike chemical sunscreens—these products don’t soak into the skin deeply, so “it’s almost impossible to have an allergic reaction” to them.

For similar reasons, consumers concerned about ingredient safety may prefer a mineral formula. shows that ingredients in chemical sunscreens enter the bloodstream after absorbing into the skin, and other studies (some conducted with animals) suggest sunscreen chemicals like oxybenzone may be . It’s too soon to definitively say if or how absorption of these chemicals impacts health, Madan says, but mineral formulas may provide peace of mind for worried individuals.

This view has broad support. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) , though more data is still needed . (The agency has requested manufacturers submit additional safety information for analysis.) And verified by the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit performing independent analysis of sunscreen safety, are mineral formulas.

Still, Torres emphasizes studies have not proven chemical formulas are dangerous; they’ve only hinted at potential risks. And there are clear benefits to wearing sunscreen, whether chemical or mineral—most importantly, reducing skin cancer risk. So if chemical formulas are what you’ll truly use, it’s better to select those than to go unprotected.

Which SPF is best?

Sun protection factor, or SPF, indicates how much UV radiation it will take to burn your skin while wearing sunscreen versus without it. The higher the SPF, the stronger the protection.

The FDA , and the American Academy of Dermatology . Fair-skinned individuals may want an even higher SPF, Madan says—but beyond a certain point, SPF values yield diminishing returns. An SPF-50 formula provides such robust protection that upgrading to, say, SPF 100 only offers a tiny amount of extra benefit, he notes.

Remember to reapply every couple hours in the sun, especially when swimming or sweating heavily, regardless of your chosen SPF. And, in addition to checking the SPF level, the Skin Cancer Foundation products labeled as offering “broad-spectrum protection,” meaning protection against both UVA and UVB rays. UVA causes wrinkles and skin aging, while UVB is the primary source of sunburns—but both are linked to skin cancer.

Is sunscreen best as a spray, lotion, or stick?

Sprays, sticks, and other convenient formats are practical, but Madan recommends a traditional cream if possible. “It applies to the skin a little thicker, so patients get more coverage from a lotion,” he says.

Research supports this. Studies show people often don’t use enough spray sunscreen due to its application and many formulas being . Using a spray also introduces the risk of , especially if applied straight to the face.

But something is always preferable to nothing, Madan notes—so if a spray is all you have, use that. The sole exception? The FDA says more data is needed to prove sprays work effectively, so Madan typically advises patients to avoid those in favor of proven formulations.