Chemical-Free Sunscreens: What Are They And How Do They Work?

by Gio
Are mineral chemical-free sunscreens safer?

Can I start this post with a rant?

Chemical-free sunscreens don’t exist!


Here’s the deal: everything is made of chemicals. Water? Yup, 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.

So, what’s the deal with chemical-free sunscreens? Well, somewhere along the way, chemical was confused with synthetic. Now, it’s sort of synonymous with “non-natural”.

That’s wrong. But, for the sake of clarity, I’ll use the term “chemical-free” sunscreens to talk about sunscreens that contain mineral UV filters.

Got it? Good.

So, what the heck are chemical-free sunscreens? How do they work and should you make the switch?

niod survival 30 review

What Are Chemical-Free Sunscreens?

Well, if we want to be picky (and I do), the correct term is “inorganic”. That’s sciencey lingo for “it doesn’t contain carbon.”

There are only two UV filters that don’t have carbon:

  • Titanium dioxide
  • Zinc oxide

These two minerals are made of oxygen and metals. No carbon here.

(P.S. I don’t think the term “inorganic sunscreen” will catch on anytime soon, but “mineral sunscreen” is spreading fast. It’s a step in the right direction at least).

Related: Why Zinc Oxide Is My Fave UV Filter

How Do Chemical-Free Sunscreens Work?

Lots of folks will tell you that chemical sunscreens work by creating a shield on the skin that reflects UV rays away from it.

I was one of those folks. And like the rest of them, I was wrong. Well, 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 the other “chemical” sunscreens.

Shop Best Chemical-Free Sunscreens

Are Chemical-Free Suncreens Better?

Imo, yes. Even though they work similarly to “chemical” sunscreens, there are two key differences that makes them better:

  • 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.
  • They provide better protection: most “chemical” UV filters are one trick ponies, protecting you from either UVA or UVB rays. Titanium dioxide and zinc oxide protect from both (zinc oxide does this better than titanium dioxide).

Related: What To Do If You’re Allergic To Sunscreen

badger balm zinc oxide sunscreen cream spf 30

Where’s The Catch?

Titanium dioxide and zinc oxide are thick, white substances. They’re the reason chemical-free sunscreens are often thick and greasy 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”.

I still think it’s a small price to pay for better protection, don’t you?

If you’re ready to make the switch, check out my fave chemical-free sunscreens here.

Do you use chemical-free sunscreens? Share your experience and fave picks in the comments below.

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Brittany April 4, 2011 - 2:36 pm

Great post, darling! I love Desert Essence’s chemical-free sunscreens. They are great!

beautifulwithbrains April 4, 2011 - 8:06 pm

Brittany, thanks. I’m glad you like Desert Essence sunscreens. I haven’t had a chance to try them but I do love chemical-free sunscreens.

Dee April 4, 2011 - 6:23 pm

I’ve tried both and I agree that the chemical-free sunscreens are slightly better for me. My skin doesn’t react negatively. Do you reapply your sunscreen Gio? I tend not to as I’m only out for about 2 hours a day, 4 at most.

beautifulwithbrains April 4, 2011 - 8:08 pm

Dee, it depends. If I’m out all day in spring and summer (which rarely happens) I reapply sunscreens. But usually I spend most of my time indoors so I don’t. I don’t think that reapplying thorughout the day is necessary in that case.

Dao April 5, 2011 - 2:43 am

Things that have the “chemical-free” label irk me to no end. As a former chemistry student, I want people to know that the world is made of chemicals. But I do agree with you, physical sunblocks are a lot gentler. They are the only ones I can use.

beautifulwithbrains April 5, 2011 - 1:10 pm

Dao, it’s annoying, isn’t it? I hate when people imply that chemical-free stuff is better or safer. Everything is made of chemicals so is everything bad? Of course not.

Makeup Morsels April 5, 2011 - 3:21 am

You and your informative posts! Love this one too. Are there sunscreens that contain both physical and chemical blocks? I feel like there are…

beautifulwithbrains April 5, 2011 - 1:11 pm

Makeup Morsels, eheh, thanks. And yes, there are lots of sunscreens that contain both physical and chemical sunscreen agents. 🙂

Ozana April 5, 2011 - 6:30 am

Sure, I like these ones better, for all the reasons you just gave, but all the ones I’ve tried leave this white mask on my face. Even if I rub it well into the skin, it still looks white and kind of greasy. Maybe you guys have good brands to share here because as much as I think chemical-free sunscreen is better I simply can’t use it, and even less under make up. And I mean really good ones, not just the ones where their marketing says that they leave no white cast and then you try them and they do….

beautifulwithbrains April 5, 2011 - 1:14 pm

Ozana, unfortunately the white cast is the only “problem” physical blockers have. Both Titanium Dioxide and Zinc Oxide are white powders so they will give your skin a white cast, although it also depends on the formula. Some products leave a whiter cast than others. I have very pale skin so this is not a problem for me but if it is for you then you could try sunscreens with nanoparticles of Titanium Dioxide as those should leave a white cast on skin. Hope this helps.

xin April 5, 2011 - 8:09 am

thanks for the info. now i und we need to wait for the carbons in the sunscreen to work 😀

beautifulwithbrains April 5, 2011 - 1:15 pm

Xin, you’re welcome. 🙂

Jeni April 8, 2011 - 12:23 am

I always use sunscreens that have zinc oxide in them because that works better for me than ingredients like avobenzone (which ironically makes my skin burn).

beautifulwithbrains April 8, 2011 - 8:23 am

Jeni, that’s too bad that Avobenzone makes your skin burn. Ouch. But I think that sunscreens with Zinc Oxide are best anyway. 🙂

Janessa January 12, 2013 - 3:11 am

I love sunblocks for their immediacy. Do sunscreens cause free radicals and cancel out antioxidants applied to the skin? Thanks so much, Giorgia!

Please do let me know which products you really want to try when you do have one.

beautifulwithbrains January 12, 2013 - 7:02 am

Janessa, mmm I guess that would depend on the formula. Alcohol for instance can cause free radicals so any antioxidants you apply on your skin will have to deal with those first. And so, unless your product contains a generous dose of antioxidants, there may not be enough left to deal properly with the free radicals you already had. But most sunscreens are ok and won’t cause any side effects.

And I will, thank you! 🙂

Janessa January 12, 2013 - 2:54 pm

Got it, thanks so much for helping me out, Giorgia! I know it takes a lot of time to reply to every comment let alone so thoroughly.

beautifulwithbrains January 13, 2013 - 8:14 pm

You’re very welcome. And that’s a pleasure. 🙂

Sue the “Chemical-Free” Bastards | ChemBark June 18, 2013 - 5:39 am

[…] everything that I have come across as “chemical free” (e.g., cosmetics, fertilizer, sunscreen) has contained chemicals, so the claim is a false written representation of the product. Second, […]

Michelle August 30, 2017 - 7:26 am

Could you recommend some brands which you think are awesome and ship in Europe? I can only rond brands with zinc oxide and titanium dioxide somewhere in the middle of bottom of the list of ingredients. And it’s always either one of the two. I don’t mind the while cast at all. Thank you so much!

Gio September 2, 2017 - 9:45 pm

Michelle, have you tried Sunumbra? I believe they shop worldwide.


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