Walk into any dermatologist’s office and one of the first things they’ll ask is, “Are you wearing an SPF 30+ every day?” Not only does sun protection ward off signs of premature aging, including wrinkles, collagen depletion and sunspots, but it’s your skin’s #1 defense against skin cancer. Interestingly, SPF is a relatively modern invention; it wasn’t until the 1950s that we really saw usable products. It’s come a long way since then, and today we have access to many sophisticated formulations. So, what’s zinc oxide’s place in the world of SPF and what is zinc oxide used for in makeup? Let’s discuss.
Zinc Oxide & Sun Protection
Though sunscreen itself isn’t that old, zinc oxide — a primary component in mineral (or “physical”) sunscreens — actually dates way back. This white and powdery inorganic compound comes from the mineral zincite, and there are historical reports from as far back as 500 BC tying it to medicinal use. For example, these ancient documents indicate it was used as a salve for eyes and to treat open wounds. Greek doctors may have created ointments out of zinc oxide to help treat skin cancers.
Today zinc oxide isn’t used for those purposes, but it is utilized in sunscreen — AKA the most important skincare product you’ll ever buy and use.
“Zinc oxide is considered one of the best sunscreen ingredients we have access to. Not only does it block both UVA and UVB rays – which are responsible for causing burns, skin damage, and skin cancer — but it’s completely photostable and resistant to water. In other words, it won’t break down when exposed to the sun and it’ll hold up through sweat and swimming for longer,” says Dr. Ashley Magovern, a board-certified dermatologist and owner of Manhattan Dermatology in Manhattan, CA.
Dr. Magovern adds that zinc oxide actually protects against some of those longer UVA rays, too, which are responsible for both skin cancer and signs of aging. These rays are always lurking — even on cloudy days, and regardless of season — so it’s important to shield yourself against them at all times.
Who Benefits Most from Zinc Oxide Sunscreens?
“While many skin types benefit from using a sunscreen containing zinc oxide, it’s particularly useful for babies and young children whose skin may not be as mature and developed as adult skin. It’s also ideal for those with very sensitive skin,” says Dr. Magovern. “This is because zinc oxide, a primary ingredient in physical sunscreens, sits on the skin like a barrier of protection instead of getting absorbed into the skin like chemical sunscreens.”
Basically, younger skin and sensitive skin (including skin afflicted by eczema or psoriasis) have a weaker barrier, which allows for deeper penetration of products. The ingredients found in chemical sunscreens aren’t bad, but they might cause a reaction in these skin types.
“In short, zinc oxide — and the other most common physical sunscreen ingredient, titanium dioxide — are considered nonirritating, nonallergenic, and are less likely to cause acne breakouts,” says Dr. Magovern.
One drawback of zinc oxide is that in its raw form it’s stark white and has a very thick consistency. That means that those with darker complexions might experience a cast when applying a sunscreen containing it, which can turn their skin a temporary greyish hue. That said, formulas are being continually refined and there are now sunscreens and makeup with zinc oxide that won’t leave an unwanted cast.
Try Zinc Oxide Yourself
The majority of our foundations contain zinc oxide for added sun protection. One of the easiest on-the-go options is our COMPLEXION RESCUE Tinted Hydrating Gel Cream SPF 30, a multi-tasking tinted moisturizer that provides buildable coverage for a wide variety of skin tones, all while protecting your skin from the sun without the white cast sometimes associated with zinc oxide.
If you’re looking for just a moisturizing mineral sunscreen, SKINLONGEVITY Vital Power Moisturizer Broad Spectrum SPF 30 boasts a lightweight and elegant consistency. For touch-ups throughout the day that’ll further protect you from the sun’s rays, keep some MINERAL VEIL Finishing Powder SPF 25 nearby as well.