What is sunscreen with zinc?

Clinically reviewed by Nancy Kupka PhD, RN Mar 10, 2022 • 6 min

When it comes to reading labels, sunscreens can feel like a test of your scientific knowledge. Don't get frustrated—or worse, skip using sunscreen altogether. Here are some simple tips on picking a zinc-based sunscreen that won't make you red in the face.

How does zinc oxide protect you from the sun?

Zinc oxide is a mineral found in some sunscreens  that works as a physical barrier on top of your skin to block the sun's harmful ultraviolet (UV) radiation. You might find zinc oxide in other products in your home where a skin barrier is helpful, like in creams that block moisture to prevent diaper rash.

According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, zinc oxide works as a barrier to block and scatter UV rays before they can harm your skin, which makes zinc a good sunscreen. Some users also like zinc oxide because it's considered noncomedogenic (it doesn’t block pores). Titanium dioxide is another mineral-based sunscreen ingredient that works like zinc oxide.  

Chemical sunscreens work differently than mineral-based options. Instead of blocking UV rays, chemical sunscreens absorb the sun’s rays before they can harm your skin. Examples of chemical sunscreen ingredients include avobenzene and oxybenzone.

Who should use zinc-based sunscreens?

Everyone 6 months of age and older should use sunscreen, whether it contains zinc oxide or not. Typically, those with sensitive skin may prefer to use zinc oxide or titanium dioxide-based sunscreens because they may be less irritating. Mineral-based sunscreen can be used on infants over 6 months old. Zinc oxide is considered safe for babies' sensitive skin. Note that the American Academy of Dermatology Association says to avoid using sunscreen on babies under 6 months of age, if possible, and keep them out of the sun instead. Dress infants in protective clothing and keep them in the shade, being careful to prevent overheating.

How to pick a zinc oxide sunscreen

You'll need to check your sunscreen's label and instructions to make sure you're buying the appropriate product for your activities.

  • Choose sunscreens noted as broad-spectrum protection, which means they block both ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB) radiation. While UVB rays cause sunburn, UVA rays are known to cause premature skin aging, and both can lead to skin cancer.  It's important to protect against both types of harmful rays.
  • Go for sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or higher. Use the sunscreen on all skin not covered by clothing. 
  • Select a sunscreen that’s water-resistant. No sunscreen is considered waterproof or sweatproof, but water-resistant sunscreen can work for a short time on wet skin.
  • Look at the ingredient list. There isn't just one answer to what percentage of zinc oxide is the right amount in a sunscreen. Many products contain about 20% zinc oxide, while others contain more or less. If the sunscreen contains zinc oxide, it will be listed as an ingredient, but it is not always the only protectant in the bottle. In fact, many sunscreens use multiple types of protectants, sometimes including both chemical and mineral ingredients in the same product.
  • Know your beauty routine and preferences. Zinc oxide might leave a light white coating on your skin, but some products on the market come tinted (for use on the face to match your skin tone) in playful colors (think back to that lifeguard's bright blue nose at the beach), or even in new clear formulas. The important thing is to find a product that is both good at protecting you from the sun and one that you enjoy using so you won't be tempted to skip it.

When and how should zinc oxide sunscreen be used?

You can use zinc oxide sunscreen to protect your skin. Follow your sunscreen's instructions for application, including most recommended tips, including:

  • Apply sunscreen 15–30 minutes before heading outdoors, being sure to cover all exposed areas on your body, from head to toe.
  • Use the recommended amount of sunscreen, about 1 ounce per adult, for full coverage. One ounce is around the amount that would fit in a shot glass. Reapply it about every two hours or after swimming or toweling off.

With these tips, you can protect your skin when you head outside, whether you choose to use zinc oxide or another type of sunscreen.

Updated March 2022.

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