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

by Gio
Are mineral chemical-free sunscreens safer?

I’ll tell you a secret: Chemical-free sunscreens don’t exist!

WTH?

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.

WARNING!

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


How effective is your sunscreen? Sign up to the newsletter below to receive the “Sunscreen Audit” Worksheet and find out if your sunscreen is really up to the job:


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

paula's choice super-light daily wrinkle defense spf 30 review

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.

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21 comments

Brittany April 4, 2011 - 2:36 pm

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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…

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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. 🙂

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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….

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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.

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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 😀

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beautifulwithbrains April 5, 2011 - 1:15 pm

Xin, you’re welcome. 🙂

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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).

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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. 🙂

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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.

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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! 🙂

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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.

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beautifulwithbrains January 13, 2013 - 8:14 pm

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

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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, […]

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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!

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Gio September 2, 2017 - 9:45 pm

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

Reply

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