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How-To Guide on Zinc Sunscreen, Explained by A Derm (2023)

Most of us know how important sun protection is, but finding the right sunscreen can be a struggle. In my quest to find the perfect go-to sunscreen for my face, I tried countless chemical sunscreens that made my eyes sting when I went swimming or at the end of the day when I washed my face. It wasn’t until I tried a zinc sunscreen that I realized life didn’t have to be this way! 

I’m here to walk you through what makes zinc sunscreen different, with the help of Dr. Faiyaaz Kalimullah, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and cofounder of the Center for Dermatology and Aesthetic Medicine in Chicago. We’ll cover what exactly zinc oxide is and the pros and cons of using a sunscreen with this special ingredient, plus what to look out for when comparing products. Let’s dive in and help you stay protected from the sun’s powerful rays! 

Why Wearing Sunscreen is Important

Before we get into the specifics of zinc oxide, a quick recap on why sunscreen use in general is so important to our well-being and how often we should be applying it. 

According to the American Academy of Dermatology, anyone can get skin cancer, regardless of age, gender, or skin tone–and it is estimated that one in five Americans will develop skin cancer in their lifetime. To reduce your risk of skin cancer, you can protect yourself from the sun’s harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays by wearing sunscreen. 

“I generally recommend that people of all ages, from infants to adults, should wear sunscreen daily,” says Kalimullah. “This is because even relatively short exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun can cause DNA damage in your skin–leading to an increased risk of precancerous growths, skin cancers, and even premature aging of the skin. During the summertime, this process can start to occur within as little as 15 minutes of unprotected sun exposure.” 

Do you need to wear sunscreen in the winter, too? The American Academy of Dermatology recommends that you do, as does Kalimullah. 

“UV radiation can penetrate through clouds and windows, which is why I also recommend using daily sunscreen even during the wintertime, and for people who spend most of their days indoors,” says Kalimullah. “That being said, if you are going to be spending extended periods of time in direct sunlight, it’s always a good idea to reapply your sunscreen every two hours.”

What is Zinc Oxide? 

“Zinc oxide is a naturally occurring mineral that has been used medicinally for thousands of years,” says Kalimullah. “As a sunscreen, it primarily works by absorbing harmful UV radiation from the sun and converting into a very small amount of heat, which then gets dissipated from the surface of your skin. To a lesser extent, zinc oxide also provides a physical barrier, reflecting and scattering UV radiation away from your skin as well.”

Zinc oxide is one of the primary ingredients found in physical sunscreens (the other being titanium dioxide). While physical sunscreens work like a shield, sitting on the surface of your skin and reflecting the sun’s rays, chemical sunscreens work like a sponge–they absorb the sun’s rays via active ingredients like oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate, and octinoxate.

Pros and Cons of Zinc Sunscreens

Some people love zinc sunscreen, and others prefer to stick with a chemical option. There are pros and cons to each approach–let’s start with the good stuff zinc offers. 

“Zinc oxide has many benefits as a sunscreen product–it is one of the most broad-spectrum sunscreen ingredients available, providing protection against both UVA and UVB radiation, and it does not break down with prolonged exposure to sunlight,” says Kalimullah. “Unlike chemical sunscreens (which need to be applied 20-30 minutes prior to sun exposure), it also works immediately upon application.” 

Kalimullah has also seen the advantages of zinc oxide sunscreens especially impact specific user groups and people with various skin conditions:

“I find that many of my patients with more sensitive, or eczema-prone skin often find zinc oxide sunscreens much less irritating than chemical sunscreens–which also makes them ideal for infants and kids,” says Kalimullah. “It’s also non comedogenic, and is unlikely to cause acne flares. Clinically, I also find that patients with melasma and hyperpigmentation often get better results with zinc oxide sunscreens than with chemical sunscreens.”

Another advantage of using a zinc, mineral sunscreen is that they are reef-safe, unlike chemical sunscreens. Zinc sunscreens that are purely mineral-based don’t contain any of the chemicals that have been linked to coral reef deterioration, so if you plan to do any ocean swimming after applying sunscreen and want to help keep marine life thriving, zinc is the preferred option. 

With so many pros, what are the cons of using a zinc sunscreen? A lot of it comes down to personal preference, with some people liking the feel of chemical sunscreen on their face more or the way it absorbs. Plus, there’s one primary drawback people who use zinc sunscreen often report: 

“The main disadvantage of zinc oxide is that it can sometimes leave a white or grey cast on the skin, especially on people with darker skin tones,” says Kalimullah. “There are newer, tinted zinc formulas that help alleviate this issue and look much more natural.”

How to Choose a Zinc Sunscreen

Not all zinc sunscreens are created equal, so there are some things you should look out for when choosing one. A few recommendations from Kalimullah:

“I generally recommend looking for a water-resistant sunscreen with at least an SPF of 30 for daily wear,” he says. “If you are purchasing a pure zinc oxide sunscreen, try to make sure the ingredients contain at least 10% zinc oxide.”

When it comes to looking for a sunscreen with higher SPF than 30, it may not have as much of a difference as you think. Dermatologists recommend using a sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30 because it blocks 97% of the sun’s UVB rays. Sunscreens with higher SPFs block slightly more of the sun’s UVB rays, but no sunscreen can block 100% of the sun’s UVB rays. 

Importantly, higher number SPFs last the same amount of time as low number SPFs, so using a higher number SPF does not allow you to spend additional time outdoors without reapplying. However, many individuals only apply about 20–50% of the amount of sunscreen needed to achieve the amount of SPF on the label, so the benefit of using a higher SPF sunscreen is that it can help to compensate for this under-application. 

Another thing to be aware of is that not all zinc oxide sunscreens are chemical-free. Some sunscreen manufacturers include chemical sunscreen ingredients such as avobenzone or octocrylene in their mineral-based products, which may be undesirable if you’re trying to avoid those ingredients in your sunscreen. If you want a chemical-free formula, make sure to read the ingredients list carefully.

Stay safe from the sun! 

Zinc sunscreen has proven itself to be an excellent choice for sun protection in our daily skincare routines–its natural and safe ingredients, broad-spectrum coverage, and suitability for sensitive skin make it a top contender for your go-to sunscreen. For me, I love using a zinc sunscreen that doesn’t irritate my skin but still gives me super effective protection from the sun’s rays. 

But remember, the best sunscreen is the one you’ll use daily. So experiment with what works for you, and whether it’s a zinc choice or not, try your best to get into a consistent sun protection habit. Whether you’re heading to the beach for a sun-soaked day or just stepping out for errands, making sunscreen a staple in your daily skincare regimen can help ensure that your skin remains healthy and radiant for years to come.