Physical vs. Chemical Sunscreen: Which Should You *Really* Be Using?

difference between chemical physical sunscreen
By Holly Sims

The most important lesson I wish that I had listened to when I was younger is to ALWAYS WEAR SUNSCREEN.

As I enter into my thirties, I can honestly say that my biggest skincare concerns over the last few years have been hyperpigmentation (i.e., sun spots) and fine lines, both of which could have been prevented with SPF.

If you’re in the same boat, and wondering what the difference is between physical sunscreen and chemical sunscreen—and which you should be using on your face—this post breaks it all down for you.

The first thing you should know: not all sunscreen is created equal. I’ll admit that I didn’t even know this until a few months ago when I started routinely getting asked the same question on my sunscreen review Instagram posts: “Is this a chemical or physical sunscreen?”

Clearly, I had some research to do…. so, I’ll explain what I learned and break down the difference for you below. 

Whether you’re heading on a beach vacation or simply looking to add a sunscreen to your everyday makeup routine, this overview (plus sunscreen recs) has you covered—literally.

PHYSICAL VS. CHEMICAL SUNSCREENS: What’s the Difference?

Basically, there are two main types of sunscreens: physical and chemical.

Physical Sunscreen: Think of physical sunscreen as a “blackout curtain” that provides total blockage from the sun’s harmful rays (both UVA and UVB). It sits on top of the skin and acts a barrier that reflects damaging UV rays away from the skin, almost like a mirror. 

Chemical Sunscreen: Think of chemical sunscreen as a “tinted window” rather than a full-blown black-out curtain. Chemical sunscreen penetrates the skin’s surface to absorb the sun’s rays, preventing them from penetrating deeper into the skin where they cause damage. Multiple chemical ingredients are generally needed in a sunscreen to provide both UVA and UVB protection.

So how do you know which of the two sunscreens is better for you? Read on…


OUR FAVORITE SUNSCREEN FOR THE FACE:

EltaMD UV Clear Broad-Spectrum SPF 46: highly recommended by dermatologists; lightweight and a fantastic face sunscreen for any skin type.

Tatcha Silken Pore Perfecting Sunscreen Broad Spectrum SPF 35: this top-rated sunscreen is a bit pricey, but worth it.


PHYSICAL SUNSCREEN

The two main ingredients that you’ll find in physical sunblocks are zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, both of which are mineral-based ingredients (which is why many people refer to physical sunscreens as “mineral sunscreens”).

Pros:

– As mentioned above, physical sunscreens offer broad-spectrum (UVA and UVB) protection which starts working as soon as the sunscreen is applied.

– The ingredients are less likely to clog pores than chemical sunscreens ingredients.

­Cons:

– A key point to remember when using a physical sunscreen is that they require more frequent application since they are easily removed from the skin (by rubbing, sweating, swimming, etc.)

– Even though the two main ingredients are non-comedogenic (won’t clog pores), physical sunscreens are often thicker in texture and can leave a film on the skin which may cause problems for people with oily skin.

– They can feel occlusive and are difficult to wash off.

– Traditional zinc oxide formulations can leave a white cast on the skin, but thankfully, modern formulations contain micronized ingredients for a sheerer appearance.

WHO IS PHYSICAL SUNSCREEN BEST FOR?

  • This type of sunscreen is generally well tolerated by sensitive and/or acne-prone skin
  • The thicker formulas are generally very moisturizing, so they can be more appealing to people with dry skin
  • Physical sunscreens are also appealing to those who want a natural sunscreen product
  • They’re a good choice for women who are pregnant and breastfeeding, as well as for children

Best Physical Sunscreens:

SUPERGOOP! 100% Mineral Smooth & Poreless Matte Screen SPF 40: doubles as a primer that gives the skin a blurred effect

Coola Mineral Face Matte Tint Moisturizer SPF 30: a great sunscreen for the face that’s perfect for anyone with oily skin

SkinCeuticals Physical Fusion UV Defense SPF 50: slightly tinted and water resistant; doesn’t leave a white cast

Colorescience Sunforgettable Total Protection Brush-On Shield SPF 50: ideal for mid-day application that won’t mess up your makeup

Shiseido Ultimate Sun Protection Cream SPF 50+ Wetforce: great body sunscreen, especially if you plan on swimming

Australian Gold Botanical Sunscreen Tinted Mineral Lotion SPF50: love this sunscreen for wearing underneath makeup; has a slightly tinted, primer-like consistency


CHEMICAL SUNSCREEN

Many chemical sunscreen products include multiple active ingredients in order to provide broad-spectrum protection, as well as antioxidants (vitamins C and E) to combat the free radical damage that chemical sunscreens predispose the skin to.

Examples of ingredients found in chemical sunscreen include: avobenzone, oxybenzone, octinoxate, octisalate octocrylene and homosalate, all of which are carbon-based (organic) compounds that create a chemical reaction with the UV rays they absorb, converting the rays into heat which is then released from the skin.

unseen sunscreen supergoop

Pros:

– Chemical sunscreens are typically thinner and silkier, which makes them more convenient for everyday use, so they are often found in a variety of makeup and skincare products (think about your tinted moisturizers that contain SPF… these are typically chemical sunscreens).

– They also require less product for adequate protection and less frequent application.

 

Cons:

– Even though the lightweight texture is an advantage, chemical sunscreen ingredients have the tendency to clog pores, so they can be an issue for people with acne-prone skin.

– Also, since chemical sunscreen products typically contain multiple ingredients, the risk for irritation is higher in people with sensitive skin.

– Another important point is that chemical sunscreens should be avoided in pregnant women since they absorb into the skin (and have the potential to enter the bloodstream).

– Compared to the immediate protection provided by physical sunscreens, chemical sunscreens take about 20 minutes to effectively penetrate into the skin, so they should be applied prior to leaving the house.

WHO IS CHEMICAL SUNSCREEN BEST FOR?

  • Chemical sunscreens can be used by people with normal skin
  • They are especially great for those with oily skin
  • Anyone with acne-prone skin should be careful with chemical sunscreen, since these can clog pores.
  • One of the main reasons why I used to avoid wearing sunscreen is because I hated how most felt on my oily skin.

In recent years, I have discovered several chemical sunscreens that I actually enjoy applying because of their lightweight and silky consistency. Some even double as makeup primers.

I’ll include some of my favorites below. Note that many chemical sunscreens are also formulated with physical sunscreen ingredients!


Best Chemical Sunscreens:

SUPERGOOP! Unseen Sunscreen Broad Spectrum SPF 40: a great option to wear under makeup, since it dries instantly

La Roche-Posay Anthelios Clear Skin Dry Touch Sunscreen SPF 60: lightweight and doesn’t feel sticky when applied

Holly Sims is a beauty-product obsessed clinical pharmacist from Birmingham, Alabama. She shares all of her skincare and makeup expertise on her “Insta-Blog.” Follow her here: @thehollyhighlight

Do you have a favorite sunscreen that’s not listed here? Leave it in the comments below!

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3 Comments

  1. Caroline
    January 26, 2020 / 2:27 pm

    I had no idea there was a difference. This is very helpful!

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