Zinc Oxide Sunscreen vs. Titanium Dioxide Sunscreen

Posted June 19, 2018

Selecting the right sunscreen can often feel like reading a foreign language. You may have heard dermatologists, family, or friends singing the praises of sunscreens that contain zinc oxide and titanium dioxide—but what makes those ingredients so crucial to sun protection?

If you’re feeling stumped by natural mineral sun care, fear not! We’re here to demystify these important ingredients. Read on for everything you need to know about zinc oxide and titanium dioxide sunscreen.

The Basics: UVA and UVB Rays

First thing’s first: a quick explanation of UVA and UVB rays.

UV (ultraviolet) rays from the sun come in three different wavelengths: UVA, UVB, and UVC. UVA and UVB rays are the most dangerous, as UVC, fortunately, is stopped by the earth’s atmosphere before it ever makes it down to your skin.

  • UVA rays: UVA rays deeply penetrate the skin, reaching far beyond the dermis—the skin’s thickest layer. This type of UV radiation can cause aging and wrinkles.
  • UVB rays: UVB rays are shorter and burn the surface of your skin, only reaching the most superficial layers. These initially lead to sunburns and, over time, cause skin cancer.

It’s essential that you use a broad-spectrum sunscreen that provides protection against both UVA radiation and UVB radiation to protect your skin from both photoaging and sun damage. As the chart below indicates, zinc oxide and titanium oxide are the only all-natural ingredients that fit the bill.

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Chemical vs Physical Sunscreen

While many sunscreens block both UVA and UVB rays, they fall into two separate categories: chemical sunscreen and physical sunscreen (often known as mineral sunscreen). Zinc oxide sunscreens and titanium dioxide sunscreens fall into the latter category. Let’s take a closer look at the difference between these two types of sunscreen:

  • Chemical sunscreen: Chemical sunscreen is exactly what it sounds like—a mixture of chemicals that come together to block UVA and UVB rays. These ingredients are tasked with degrading or deactivating sunlight, creating a chemical reaction that transforms UV rays into heat, which is then released from the skin.
  • Physical sunscreen, on the other hand, is made of natural compounds that sit on the surface of the skin. They absorb and deflect sunlight so that UV radiation doesn’t penetrate the epidermis. As dermatologist Dr. Doris Gray explains, these ingredients act similarly to aluminum foil or a mirror, keeping sunlight from penetrating deeply. Sunscreens with zinc oxide and titanium dioxide fall into this category.

Countless dermatologists recommend physical sunscreen over chemical. Dr. Lawrence Desjarlais lists the various benefits of natural mineral sunscreen, such as sunscreen with zinc oxide and titanium dioxide.

  • Physical sunscreen “protects from the sun as soon as it’s applied;” chemical sunscreen takes approximately 20 minutes to begin to work.
  • Physical sunscreen “lasts longer when in direct UV light;” chemical sunscreen stops working much more rapidly and must be applied more frequently.
  • Physical sunscreen is gentle on the skin and less likely to clog pores, "making it better for sensitive skin;" chemical sunscreen is much harsher.

Bottom line? No matter your age, what your skin type is, or any particular skin condition you might be dealing with, physical sunscreen is almost always a better choice—and dermatologists agree.

Zinc Oxide vs Titanium Oxide

If you’re looking into purchasing a physical sunscreen, you’ve likely heard of zinc oxide and titanium dioxide—these are the only FDA-approved physical UV filters for sun protection.

While there has been some hesitation regarding absorption of these compounds through skin, these concerns are unwarranted. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation: "Current research indicates that fears about absorption are unwarranted… The evidence that sunscreens are safe and effective is overwhelming."

Deciding which natural mineral is best for your skin depends on a number of factors, including skin tone, skin sensitivity, and planned usage.

  • Zinc Oxide Benefits

Zinc oxide is derived from zinc, a naturally reflective material. Here are some of the benefits of this physical sunscreen ingredient:

  1. Nearly invisible to the naked eye: Zinc oxide is now scaled down into very small particles, known as nanoparticles, to prevent that chalky, white look made famous by 1970s’ surf culture. It’s scaled down to between 30 and 200 nm, leaving a slightly opaque layer—a characteristic that makes it ideal for those with lighter skin who are looking for a bit of coverage.
  2. Antimicrobial: The antimicrobial factors can also help wounds heal more quickly, meaning zinc oxide is safe to use on your skin.
  3. Non-comedogenic: Another one of zinc oxide’s benefits is its non-comedogenic properties. In simpler terms, that means it’s oil-free and won’t clog your pores.
  4. Sun Protection: Perhaps the most enticing zinc oxide benefit is its strength in protecting your skin against the sun. It is one of the most effective sun protectors available, blocking out both short and long UVA rays and all UVB rays.
  • Titanium Dioxide Benefits

Titanium dioxide is derived from—you guessed it—titanium. It’s a natural mineral that is used in sunscreen and cosmetics to whiten, thicken, and lubricate, all while offering protection against the sun.

  1. Invisible to the naked eye: It’s typically scaled down much smaller, between 10 and 100 nanometers, making it less noticeable on the skin. This makes it a good choice for those with darker skin, as it doesn’t leave an opaque layer.
  2. Non-comedogenic and gentle on skin: Just like zinc oxide, titanium dioxide is also noncomedogenic. It’s extremely gentle, making it a great choice for those with sensitive skin.

While it doesn’t provide as much protection from long-wave UVA rays, titanium dioxide is extremely effective at blocking short-wave UVA and UVB, making it a great choice for casual daily sun exposure.

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Sunscreen Options for Common Skin Problems

Physical sunscreens with zinc oxide and titanium dioxide can be a great sun protection solution for individuals dealing with a wide array of skin conditions. If you struggle with any of the following skin problems or concerns, keep the following suggestions in mind:

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  1. Redness and Rosacea

    Because zinc oxide is both noncomedogenic (non-pore clogging) and antimicrobial, it is a good choice for those with redness and rosacea due to highly sensitive skin. Not only is it gentle, but the antimicrobial properties can help wounds or other skin damage in the event that you do get burnt.

    If you’re looking to fight excessive redness, our Sunforgettable Total Protection Face Shield is a hydrating, antioxidant-rich formula with 12% zinc oxide. It also contains Vital ET, Vitamin B3, and a chamomile oil derivative called Bisabolol, all known for their calming properties.

  2. Sun Damage and Wrinkles

    Looking to prevent further damage to already sun-damaged skin? Perhaps you want to take preventive measures to keep your skin soft and smooth with a youthful glow as long as possible. Zinc oxide is your go-to sunscreen ingredient. It provides protection against the broadest range of ultra-violet rays, including short and long UVA rays and all UVB rays.

    Sunforgettable Total Protection Face Shield is your go-to for full protection. Its blend of zinc oxide and other specialty ingredients provides protection against UV rays, pollution, blue (HEV) light, and helps minimize damage caused by infrared radiation.

  3. Acne-Prone Skin

    If your skin is prone to unwanted acne and blemishes, titanium dioxide is a great sunscreen solution for acne prone skin. Because it is scaled down into much smaller nanoparticles than zinc oxide, it’s lighter weight and doesn’t clog pores.

    If you find that pure zinc oxide formulas are too heavy for your skin, then Sunforgettable Total Protection Brush-On Shield is the perfect solution. It contains both zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, giving you the best of both worlds.

    Zinc oxide provides broad spectrum UVA and UVB protection, while the inclusion of titanium dioxide ensures the formula is lightweight and adept at minimizing excess oil. We make our sunscreen solution as easy to apply as possible, providing a simple-to-use brush-formula that can be applied and reapplied over your makeup throughout the day. Simply sweep the applicator brush across your skin, and increase coverage as needed. A radiant complexion combined with the ultimate in physical sunscreen protection? That’s something we can all get behind.

    Colorescience offers ultimate sun protection with products that combine the power of zinc oxide and titanium oxide. Simple to apply and easy to use, our line of sun protection products can help you achieve a flawless, radiant finish, while offering the strong sun protection your skin deserves.

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