zinc oxide sunscreen for face

Zinc Oxide Sunscreen for Face Protection: What You Need to Know

Shannon JohnsonSkin Insights

You may have been told to buy zinc oxide sunscreen for face protection—but do you know why? First and foremost, protecting the skin on your face is critical for avoiding premature skin aging and cutting the risk of several types of skin cancer. 

Poorly protected sun exposure causes skin “photoaging” such as wrinkles, uneven tone and pigmentation, and rough or scaly texture. It also leaves the skin under assault from the sun’s radiation, which decreases immune function and damages DNA, which can ultimately lead to skin cancer. Good sun protection habits cut the risk for several types of skin cancer, including basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and melanoma. 

The best way to protect your face from skin damage and other hazards is to stay out of the sun or wear a broad-brimmed hat and sunglasses and, you guessed it, put on sunscreen. Here’s what you need to know about the benefits of zinc oxide sunscreen, how to use it properly, and much more.

Zinc Oxide Sunscreen: What You Need to Know

More than a dozen ingredients are approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to protect skin from the harmful effects of the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) radiation—so-called sunscreen “actives.” 

They work in one of two ways: they either absorb the sun’s high-intensity UV rays and convert that energy into heat (these are “chemical” actives), or they physically block and reflect UV light (these are “inorganic” / “mineral” actives). 

Of all these sunscreen actives, zinc oxide (ZnO) is the clear winner, and it falls into the mineral category.

What is Zinc Oxide? 

Zinc oxide (also known as calamine) is an odorless, white powder that does not dissolve in water. It has soothing, antiseptic, and protective properties, with medicinal uses documented back to early humans. It physically blocks and reflects both UVA and UVB rays, which gives it a broad-spectrum effect.

Why Zinc Oxide?

Zinc oxide has several advantages over the other currently approved and hazardous sunscreen actives:

  • It is one of only two actives Generally Regarded as Safe and Effective (GRASE) by the FDA, the other is titanium dioxide (TiO2). Both of the GRASE actives are mineral actives. 
  • All of the chemical actives have concerns and/or data gaps regarding their safety and/or effectiveness. 
  • The mineral actives don’t generate heat as the sun’s rays hit them. This is important for comfort. It’s also key to avoiding flare-ups of heat-sensitive conditions such as rosacea and sensitive skin in general.

If one considers only the GRASE actives in choosing a sunscreen, zinc oxide should be the only, or at least the main, active ingredient to pick. In addition, titanium dioxide appears to have a less iron-clad safety record than zinc oxide.

Benefits of Zinc Oxide Sunscreen for the Face 

When it comes to protecting your skin from the sun’s harmful rays, choosing the right sunscreen is crucial. Zinc oxide sunscreen has emerged as a popular choice, particularly for facial use, due to its broad-spectrum protection and gentle formulation. 

Unlike chemical sunscreens that absorb UV radiation, zinc oxide works by physically blocking it, making it an excellent option for all skin types, including sensitive and acne-prone skin. But that’s not the only benefit.

Broad-spectrum protection: Zinc oxide provides better broad-spectrum protection than titanium dioxide (which doesn’t block UVA light very well). 

Protective and soothing properties for most people: Though animal studies have shown some allergy potential with zinc oxide, many wound preparations and diaper creams thrive on use of the ingredient. If it’s good enough for a baby’s irritated bottom…

Non-comedogenic properties: Zinc oxide has low comedogenicity (pore-clogging potential) and is a staple in sunscreen formulas for acne-prone skin. 

Environmental and health considerations: Of all the sunscreen actives currently in use, zinc oxide arguably has the best safety profile in humans. It’s also preferred over chemical actives for marine health. A landmark study published in 2008 showed a direct link between the death of coral reefs and the estimated 25 to 60 million bottles of sunscreen ingredients that wash off people each year. 

Zinc oxide is considered “reef-safe” but should be of the “non-nano” type because corals can ingest ZnO particles smaller than 100 nanometers. Nanoscale ZnO may also harm or disrupt algae, fish, shellfish, and other aquatic life.

How to Choose the Right Zinc Oxide Sunscreen for Your Face 

With so many mineral sunscreens now available on the market, finding the best zinc oxide sunscreen for your face can be overwhelming. Consider some of these key factors, from SPF levels and formulation types to additional skin benefits and ingredients to avoid. Whether you have dry, oily, or combination skin, you can find a mineral sunscreen to keep your face protected and healthy.

The best sunscreen is the one that fully protects your skin but also works within your lifestyle and budget.

SPF (Sun Protection Factor) Considerations 

Sun protection factor (SPF) refers to how well a product prevents sunburn, which it does by blocking UVB. Dermatologists recommend using a product with SPF of at least 30. 

The SPF indicates the length of time it would take the protected skin to burn, as compared with unprotected skin. So, if unprotected skin would burn in 10 minutes, then SPF 30-protected skin would burn in 300 minutes (10 minutes x factor of 30 = 300 minutes). This assumes an ideal application and no compromise to the application during that time (more on that below). 

Is SPF 60 twice as good as SPF 30? No. SPF 30 blocks 97% of UVB rays, and bumping up to SPF 50 blocks an additional 1% (so 98% of UVB rays). It’s difficult to get much additional benefit above SPF 50, so the key is to apply and re-apply a product between SPF 30 and SPF 50 correctly.

Formulation (Spray versus Lotion or Stick)

Have you ever tasted sunscreen while you or someone around you sprayed it? Spray sunscreen can be unintentionally inhaled, and there are possible health hazards around this. With that in mind, it’s probably better to opt for sticks, creams, and lotions. From those, pick whatever you or your kids will actually use!

Additional Skincare Benefits 

Sunscreen is the top dog in anti-aging. About 80 percent of skin aging comes from factors we can control to some extent, such as what we put in our bodies and what we expose it to on the outside (pollution, sun, etc). 

Of that 80 percent we can control, 80 percent is UV exposure, which means that a whopping 64 percent or so of skin aging comes from UV exposure. Unfortunately, much of this damage is done by early adulthood, but better late than never if you weren’t trained to slather on SPF every day while you were still in diapers. 

Sunscreen also has the benefit of promoting skin hydration by decreasing water loss. This is beneficial for every skin type, especially those who might have dry skin.

Compatibility With Makeup

Sun protection is absolutely compatible with makeup use, but consider carefully whether you want your SPF incorporated into your color cosmetics (such as foundation). For one thing, many color cosmetics with SPF use chemical actives rather than mineral actives. Of the ones using mineral actives, they more often use TiO2 than ZnO. For another thing, you’d need to apply A LOT of your color cosmetic to reach the labeled SPF.

Application Tips for Zinc Oxide Sunscreen on the Face 

Applying sunscreen is a crucial step in any skincare routine, even in the winter! Getting the application just right, however, can sometimes be a challenge. Here are some tips to help you apply zinc oxide sunscreen on your face effectively, ensuring maximum protection and a flawless finish.

Proper amount to apply: You need to apply way more than you think! The proper amount of sun protection to cover the face and neck is between one-half and one full teaspoon for each application. 

Frequency of reapplication: It should be re-applied approximately every two hours, more often if perspiring. Plus, and after each instance of swimming or toweling.

Layering with other skincare products: Sunscreen usually goes on last. This is not a hard and fast rule, but it is often done this way because it may be water-resistant and thick, and because it gets re-applied.

Common Myths and Misconceptions About Zinc Oxide Sunscreen 

Despite the proven efficacy and popularity of zinc oxide, many people have misunderstandings about its use, formulation, and effects. Before making any assumptions, get accurate information so you can make informed decisions about your sun protection routine.

White Cast 

ZnO is a white powder so it’s impossible to get a completely clear product. The smaller the zinc oxide particles, the more clear it can appear. A tradeoff to consider is that aquatic life can be adversely affected by nanoscale ZnO that washes into waterways and oceans. Many brands have worked hard to achieve a “non-nano” ZnO product with minimal white cast. Try a few in-store or through samples to find one you like.

Effectiveness Compared to Chemical Sunscreens 

Zinc oxide is one of only two sunscreen actives to provide true broad-spectrum protection (UVB plus the whole UVA spectrum). The other is a chemical active called avobenzone, which is notoriously unstable and degrades quickly when exposed to UV light (an obvious problem for a sunscreen active).

Safety Concerns

ZnO has a favorable safety profile relative to other sunscreen actives, provided it is not in a form that can be inhaled (e.g., sprays and powders). According to the Environmental Working Group, there are animal but not human studies suggesting the possibility of skin allergy. There is no known concern for developmental or reproductive harm, cancer, or skin irritation.

Why You Need Zinc Oxide Sunscreen for Face Protection

If you can deal with a tiny bit of white cast, non-nano zinc oxide is nearly ideal as a sunscreen active. True broad-spectrum protection? Check. Good human and environmental safety record? Check. Soothing and not pore-clogging? Check and check.

safely minimize skin cancer risk and visible signs of skin aging with daily application of a zinc-oxide-based facial sun protectant. The sooner the better.