In a recent video, I talked about the advantages and disadvantages of organic (chemical) vs inorganic (physical) sunscreens. One of the big drawbacks of inorganic sunscreens is that they tend to have significant white cast, which is when the sunscreen leaves a white layer on your skin. Out of the two inorganic filters (zinc oxide and titanium dioxide), titanium dioxide tends to give a stronger white cast. It’s also more photoreactive and doesn’t give much protection against UVA, so zinc oxide tends to be the more popular choice.
While my preference is for organic sunscreens, a lot of people like inorganic sunscreens (often due to sensitivities to organic sunscreens). I decided to review three popular inorganic zinc oxide-only sunscreens in Australia to see if I was missing out.
The three contenders:
- $19.99 AUD per 59 mL ($0.34 per mL)
- 21.6% zinc oxide
- 2 hours water resistant
- has vitamin E
- $10.95 AUD per 75 g ($0.15 per g)
- 15% zinc oxide
- 4 hours water resistant
- has 3% niacinamide
- $19.99 AUD for 75 g ($0.27 per g)
- 25% zinc oxide
- 2 hours water resistant
The most important thing about sunscreen is protection, and all three deliver well here. In Australia, SPF labelling regulations classify sunscreen into brackets, which is why they all have round SPF numbers. SPF 50 means SPF 50-60, while SPF 50+ is the highest classification allowed, and means at least SPF 60. In my opinion anything above SPF 30 is acceptable for daily use, so these all work.
Interestingly, the lowest zinc oxide content (15% for SunSense) also gives the highest protection, which goes to highlight how you can’t predict SPF protection from the ingredients alone, since a billion other factors go into protection level (inactive ingredients, how the sunscreen formula’s processed, zinc oxide particle size, antioxidant content etc.).
All three have broad spectrum protection, which in Australia means that the UVA protection is at least 1/3 of the SPF, and it passes the critical wavelength test which means the longer UVA wavelengths are substantially protected.
All three are also water resistant. SunSense has the highest rating (4 hours), while Neutrogena and Invisible Zinc have 2 hour water resistance.
SunSense Sensitive Invisible has THE nicest texture I’ve tried in a physical sunscreen. It’s a little thicker than my favourite organic sunscreens, but it’s better than a lot of organic sunscreens I’ve tried. It feels a bit like a moisturiser.
Unfortunately, the Neutrogena and Invisible Zinc sunscreens are way more disappointing. Neutrogena Sheer Zinc is thick, sticky and hard to spread, and the feeling didn’t go away when I put make-up on top. Invisible Zinc managed to be even worse, plus it smelt like sunscreen, which was surprising since I always assumed that the “sunscreen smell” was from the organic filters.
SunSense seemed to come off reasonably easily despite the higher water resistance – after a thorough wipedown with a wipe it didn’t feel like any residue was left. Neutrogena was a bit harder to remove, and there was still a bit of a tacky feeling after wiping. Invisible Zinc again fared the worst – despite wiping thoroughly, my skin still had a squeaky film on top, which didn’t go away until after three rounds of cleansing.
I couldn’t bring myself to use all the sunscreens for a week like I usually do for a pore clogging test, but the SunSense gave me a few clogged pores after a week (pretty standard for me and sunscreens – sunscreen formulas almost always clog my pores after a week of use unless I’m ruthless with exfoliation).
The big surprise was that Invisible Zinc managed to give me clogged pores after only 6 hours of use, which has never happened to me with any other product before. I’m sure it doesn’t do this for a lot of people, but this sunscreen just seems to hate my skin, and annoyingly Australian sunscreens don’t usually have full ingredient lists so I have zero clue what’s going on.
What you came here for: the white cast photos.
I often don’t trust reviews of white cast – so many people underapply sunscreen even when they’re trying to apply sunscreen liberally, and the number of sunscreen reviews from bloggers that say “a little goes a long way” makes me side-eye so hard I get a cramp. Sunscreen underapplication is a sin, guys – SPF scales linearly with the amount you apply, and applying small amounts means you’re likely to get patchy protection due to skin’s ridgey texture.
You’re meant to apply 2 mg per square centimetre, which for me means I need around 0.76 g of sunscreen to get 2 mg per square centimetre (as determined using tape in this video).
The other issue with white cast reviews is that a lot of people mention that the white cast goes away with rubbing. Unfortunately rubbing too much reduces sun protection, so once I spread the sunscreen on my face evenly I stop.
I weighed out 0.76 g of each sunscreen onto plastic ziplock bags on my scales, and applied each one to my face with a single finger and minimal rubbing. Then after about ten minutes, I removed the sunscreen from the right half of my face with a make-up remover wipe as thoroughly as I could without my face getting too irritated.
The reason I did it this way instead of just applying half this amount to half my face is because I wasn’t confident that I’d be applying the sunscreen to my face as evenly as possible if I was just aiming for half my face.
I used three different lighting conditions to try to get an idea of how it would look in different situations, and tried to make them as consistent as possible. My phone camera tends to amplify the white cast slightly, so keep that in mind. My skin is NC20 in MAC foundation shades.
Indirect sunlight next to a window
Indoor shade (unfortunately didn’t realise the focus was off in the Neutrogena pic until later)
Again, SunSense wins, with Neutrogena and Invisible Zinc falling behind (Neutrogena was a bit better than Invisible Zinc). Interestingly, it seems like the more zinc oxide there is in the sunscreen, the worse it performs in all areas, so I think sunscreen companies should really focus on playing around with the formula to get higher protection with lower amounts of zinc oxide (which I realise is much easier said than done, but hey, that’s my job).
SunSense pretty much wins in all respects here. I rarely get such a one-sided comparison where one product just blows the others out of the water, but that’s what happened here. I’m not mad at the result at all – SunSense is produced by Ego Pharmaceuticals, an Australian company and invests in research and partners with dermatologists to educate consumers. They’re also the most affordable option.
Are you a physical/inorganic sunscreen fan? What’s your favourite sunscreen?
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