Zinc and Titanium Oxide – Which is Better in Sunscreen?

Effect of sunscreen

Two photographs showing the effect of applying sunscreen in visible light and in UVA light. The photograph on the right was taken using ultraviolet photography shortly after application of sunscreen to half of the face.

Dear Nicki,
Which is better – zinc or titanium oxide?  Can you recommend any formulas for me?
-M

Dear M,

It is a little-known fact that zinc oxide is better than titanium oxide.  This is because UVA and UVB rays are separated into longer UVA (UV-aging) and shorter UVB (UV-burning), and zinc oxide blocks a significantly longer portion of UVA rays.  (Skin Pharmacology and Physiology, 2005)

To micronize or not to micronize?

Micronized particle!The best sunscreens with zinc oxide have the ingredient micronized.  Some scientists argue that micronized is bad because small oxides can get into your skin and cause oxidation, yet the vast majority argue that the benefit of a micronized zinc oxide in preventing UV-induced oxidation is greater than the risk of oxide-induced oxidation.  What’s more, very precise studies [with electron microscopy] have shown only very minimal levels of micronized oxides penetrate the uppermost layer of the skin (Skin Pharmacology and Physiology, 2007).

Besides, let’s face it – many men and women still tan to look better.  The cosmetic advantage afforded by micronizing oxides is magnificent – no telltale white streaks, fast absorption, easy make-up application afterwards.

What are the best sunscreens with zinc and titanium oxide?

NIA 24 Sun Damage Prevention 100% Mineral SunscreenNow, the best sunscreens with micronized zinc oxide, in my opinion, are Mychelle Sun Screen SPF 28 ($35.68, Amazon.com) and NIA 24 Sun Damage Prevention 100% Mineral Sunscreen SPF 30 ($27.78, Amazon.com).  Note that the NIA 24 sunscreen contains nicotinamide, a derivative of vitamin B3, which will make your skin red, irritated, and inflamed for 2-3 days.  (!)  So why use it?  Your skin will appear clearer, firmer, and smoother – all the benefits of vitamin B3 – once your skin gets used to it.  It’s  a sunscreen and a skin-refining treatment in one.
If you would prefer something that is a little more gentle, a bit more high-end, and trusted with a household name, Clarins UV Plus Day Screen High Protection SPF 40 ($53.00, Amazon.com) features a really high concentration of titanium oxide.  While I like zinc oxide better, this formula is superb – light and absorbs really fast, plus I’ve never known anyone who has gotten burned while using it!

Are zinc and titanium oxide better than chemical sunscreens?

The short answer is no.  Some skin experts like zinc and titanium oxides better than all of the other sunscreens (i.e., oxybenzone, avobenzone) because zinc and titanium oxides  form a topical layer that prevents UV light from hitting the skin.  Think of it as a physical barrier, hence oxides are “physical” sunscreens.

On the other hand, the rest are “chemical sunscreens” that allow your skin to absorb UV light but very quickly dissipate it as a different form of energy, like small quantities of heat or non-damaging light.  Some dermatologists use both chemical and physical sunscreens for extra protection, making sure to apply the chemical sunscreens first.

Hope this helps!

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13 thoughts on “Zinc and Titanium Oxide – Which is Better in Sunscreen?

  1. Aubrey says:

    Thanks for the info! I’m a dermal clinicians and I’m surprised at the the number of Aussies who still fail to apply SPF! After this great read, I can go offer them extra tips on the sunscreen debate.

  2. Robert says:

    What this article fails to reveal is that chemical sunscreens need to be re-applied around every 2 hours or so. Even more often in direct light or while sweating. And certain ingredients in chemical sunscreens can break down in the sun, releasing free radicals. European chemical ingredients such as Tinosorb M are photo-stable in sunlight. Much like zinc oxide. Zinc oxide is the best bet in sunscreens. Best ones IMO are not listed above. Look for ones made by Burnout, PurplPrairie, Eco, Pratima, Devita, and a few others. Many fail the test with their low % of zinc.

  3. Yannis says:

    “Invisible Zinc” is another great brand for physical sunscreens.

    The Invisible Zinc ESP Environmental Skin Protector is the only 100% physical sunscreen I can use on my oily-skin-type face.

  4. Nicholas says:

    If one is wearing the physical and chemical sunscreen combination to the beach or to swim, where it must be reapplied, would you recommend reapplying both or just the physical top layer. I tried reapplying both and it was not easy or cute. Thanks Nicki, and I love your blog!

  5. wilson strausser says:

    I get plenty of sun doing yard work and intentionally do not apply sunscreen because I want the maximum amount of vitamin D I can get through skin absorption. I’ll take the chance of getting skin cancer for maximum Vitamin D since I expect the more D I can produce in my skin the less chance of skin cancer; as long as I moderate my exposure to avoid burning. When I feel like I am beginning to burn I get out of the sun or just put a shirt on! Isn’t this better than chemically altering my skin surface?

  6. Nicki says:

    @Wilson – That’s an interesting proposition. However, most dermatologists feel that it is best to use a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30 for all but 15 minutes a week, allowing the light to hit your back, arms, legs, and face during the exposed time.

    Also, if you use a physical sunscreen (like titanium and zinc oxide), you are not chemically altering your skin surface. Physical sunscreens prevent UV light from hitting your skin. While micronized versions of these formulas may penetrate through the skin somewhat (0.03% in one study), this is usually prevented with ingredients like silicones, which prevent the penetration of micronized ingredients into the skin.

    Hope this helps!

  7. Jehan says:

    Hi there, this site is very resourceful-thanks! Im an already paranoid beauty/health shopper..so this site has me on high alert :/ in regrds to the sunscreen I thought was high in SPF and protecting my skin. Ive read Paulas Beauty Bible, articles, etc, but somehow missed using a physical sunscreen is better than a chemical one, better in regards to full spectrum protection-which isnt mandated in the USA. Conspiracy..? High skin cancer outbreaks, but sunscreen isnt up to par..i dunno Im paranoid. Well my q for you is, NIA sunscreen sounds great, but its jus too pricey for me. Ive always used Neutrogena for my 3 kids and myself. Do u know of an alternative at a better value? Thanks so much in advance ;)

  8. John Su says:

    @Jehan

    It’s good to be skeptical! I actually did a 5-part series analyzing whether or not organic sunscreens were inferior to inorganic ones. You should check it out. In the 5th part, I also gave product recommendations; parts 4 and 5 also talked about whether or not zinc oxide is actually “better” than titanium dioxide! Enjoy!

    http://www.futurederm.com/2012/09/13/are-inorganic-sunscreens-better-than-organic-ones-part-v-conclusion-and-product-recommendations/

  9. Pam Garcia says:

    Wilson, My super dermatologist suggests I get my sunscreenless trunk in the sun for 10 minutes 3 times a week to absorb vitamin d without the risk of skin cancer as I live in Arizona secind to Australia for getting skin cancer.

  10. Sandra says:

    Thank you so much! How I love this site! Finally a good portal with science behind! (I am a MD, so now you know why I love it!). By the way, I just wanted to say that I love MyChelle’s sunscreen. I have been using it for a while, and I am really happy with it. So glad I saw it here reviewed by you! Many thanks! Sandra

  11. Garrett says:

    “zinc oxide is better than titanium oxide”

    The above statement is not correct. While it is true that zinc protects UVA rays better than titanium dioxide, it is ALSO true that titanium dioxide protect from UVB rays better than zinc oxide. When both ingredients are used together, they actually create synergies and protect from the broad spectrum better than each ingredient alone at the same percentages.

    Just wanted to let you all know! It’s very important to understand the different strengths of zinc and titanium!

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