I’ll tell you a secret: Chemical-free sunscreens don’t exist!
Here’s the deal: everything is made of chemicals. Water? A chemical (H20). Olive oil? Made of chemicals. Your body? Hey, you’re made of chemicals, too!
Truth bomb: if it’s made of matter, it’s a chemical.
If chemical-free sunscreens existed, you’d get a big, fat bottle of… nothing! Heck, you wouldn’t even get the bottle. That’s made of chemicals, too.
So, why are people talking about chemical-free sunscreens?!
Somehow, in the skincare world, chemical-free has become synonymous with natural. Here’s what this means for sunscreens:
What Are Chemical-Free Sunscreens?
Again, there are NO chemical-free sunscreens. But, for the sake of clarity, I’ll tell you what people mean with this expression and keep using it for the rest of the article.
Chemical-free sunscreens are sunscreens that contain only natural UV filters. There are only two around:
- Titanium dioxide
- Zinc oxide
P.S. Titanium Dioxide and Zinc Oxide are minerals. A better term than chemical-free sunscreens is mineral sunscreen.
If we want to be picky (and I do), the correct term for sunscreens that contain natural UV filters is “inorganic”. Why?
In science, anything that contains carbon is called “organic” and anything that doesn’t is “inorganic”. These two filters don’t contain a drop of carbon. They may have a natural origin, but they’re inorganic. Confused much?
I personally don’t think the term inorganic sunscreen will catch on anytime soon – especially when people associate natural with organic. I’d rather call them chemical-free sunscreen even if it’s incorrect. At last, this way we’re all clear on what we’re talking about.
Related: Why Zinc Oxide Is My Fave UV Filter
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How Do Chemical-Free Sunscreens Work?
You’ve probably heard that chemical-free sunscreens work by creating a shield on the skin that reflects UV rays away from it.
I used to believe in that, too. I was wrong. Sort of.
Titanium dioxide and zinc oxide can indeed reflect SOME UV rays away from your face. But, they do absorb the bulk of them, turning them into a less damaging form of energy (heat). Just like all other UV filters out there.
Related: The Complete List Of UV Filters Used In Skincare
Are Chemical-Free Suncreens Safer And More Effective?
It depends. If you’re just looking for broad-spectrum protection, any sunscreen that protects both from UVA and UVB rays will give you that – regardless of the origin of their UV filters.
But if you have sensitive skin that gets easily irritated, chemical-free sunscreens are a much better option for you. Why? Two reasons:
- They’re gentler on the skin: Avobenzone, oxybenzone & co are famous for causing irritations and allergies, especially for people with sensitive skin. Titanium dioxide and zinc oxide rarely do.
- Fewer UV filters: You usually need 4 or 5 synthetic UV filters to provide adequate sun protection. The more UV filters your sunscreen has, the higher the chance one of them will trigger a bad reaction. Zinc oxide, on the other hand, protects you from the entire UV range.
P.S. Needless to say, UV filters aren’t the only problematic ingredient for sensitive skin in sunscreens. Beware of fragrance, essential oils, and harsh preservatives, too.
Want to know what ingredients you really need to avoid in your skincare products? Sign up to the newsletter below to receive the “Skincare Ingredients To Avoid” cheatsheet:
Related: What To Do If You’re Allergic To Sunscreen
Do Chemical-Free Sunscreens Have Any Side Effects?
Titanium Dioxide and Zinc Oxide aren’t dangerous. They’re just… unpleasant.
These minerals are so thick and white, they’re hard to spread, feel greasy on the skin and leave a ghostly white cast behind.
There are ways to get around this. If the white cast bothers you, you can opt for a tinted mineral sunscreen. Or if you want a lightweight texture, look for a sunscreen that uses nanoparticles (these are controversial, so it’s hard to find a sunscreen with this technology).
Chemical-free sunscreens are getting better, but they’re not still as pleasant to use as “chemical sunscreens”. If texture is a dealbreaker, don’t feel forced to make them work for you. Unless you’re allergic to them, there’s no reason to avoid synthetic UV filters.
Related: Synthetic VS Mineral Sunscreen: Which One Is Better?
What Are The Best Chemical-Free Sunscreens?
- Badger Balm Unscented Sunscreen SPF 30 ($15.99): Available at Iherb
- Drunk Elephant Umbra Tinte Physical Daily Defense Broad Spectrum Sunscreen SPF 30 ($36.00): Available at Sephora
- EltaMD UV Pure BroadSpectrum SPF 47 ($24.50): Available at Dermstore and Walmart
- Paula’s Choice Super-Light Daily Wrinkle Defense SPF 30 ($33.00): Available at Dermstore, Feel Unique, Nordstrom and Paula’s Choice
- Shiseido Ultimate Sun Protection SPF 50 Sunscreen + WetForce For Sensitive Skin & Children ($42.00): Available at Nordstrom and Ulta
The Bottom Line
Technically, chemical-free sunscreens don’t exist. But people use the term to talk about sunscreens that contain mineral filters. They’re a gentler option for sensitive skin, but there’s no other reason to choose them over synthetic UV filters.
Do you use chemical-free sunscreens? Share your experience and fave picks in the comments below.