Skin Care

Chemical vs. Physical Sunscreen: What’s the Difference?

Sunscreen formulations have come a long way in recent years, but with so many options, finding your holy grail still takes trial and error. What works for one person may not work for everyone—and no one wants to use a sunscreen that makes them look like a not-so-distant relative of Beetlejuice.

But choosing a sunscreen doesn’t have to be scary, if you learn how to shop smarter—and that starts with knowing the difference between the two main types, chemical sunscreen and physical (or mineral) sunscreen.

We talked to the experts—Dr. Dendy Engelman, a board-certified dermatologist in New York and Dr. Erum Ilyas, a board-certified dermatologist in King of Prussia, Pa.—about what exactly chemical and physical sunscreens are, how they work and what each type does best, so you can learn which one works for you. After all, the best sunscreen is the one you’ll use every day.

How Does Physical Sunscreen Work?

“Physical sunscreen, also known as mineral sunscreen, acts as a shield by sitting on your skin’s surface and deflecting UV rays to prevent sunburn,” explains Dr. Engelman. Physical sunscreen is made with the mineral-based ingredients zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, which help to reflect and scatter harmful rays from the sun. If the only active ingredients listed on your sunscreen’s label are zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide, it’s a physical sunscreen.

The Pros: “Because physical sunscreen sits on top of the skin rather than being absorbed, it is considered ‘safer,’ especially for children and pregnant women, than chemical sunscreen,” explains Dr. Engelman. She also shares that it is an ideal option if you need to quickly apply some sun protection and go, as it starts working right away, as opposed to chemical sunscreen, which can take about half an hour for effective sun protection. Physical sunscreen may also be a better option for those with sensitive skin.

The Cons: Physical sunscreens do have one common complaint: Their ingredients often leave a white, ghost-like cast on the user. “The reality is that even though physical sunscreens are generally recognized as safe and effective and more reliable in their ability to block UV light, they are also thicker, more difficult to apply and can leave a white ghostly cast on the skin,” explains Dr. Ilyas. Fortunately, tinted formulas and new ingredient technologies are giving physical sunscreen wearers more and more options to avoid the Casper aesthetic (see a few of our favorites below).

How Does Chemical Sunscreen Work?

While physical sunscreens work like a reflective barrier on skin’s surface, chemical sunscreens partially absorb into skin and prevent UV damage through a chemical reaction. “Chemical sunscreen usually contains oxybenzone, dioxybenzone, avobenzone, octocrylene, homosalate, octinoxate and other chemicals, which absorb and release damaging UV rays,” shares Dr. Engelman. If the active ingredients listed on your sunscreen’s label contain anything other than zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, it’s a chemical sunscreen (though some hybrid formulas contain both chemical and physical ingredients).

The Pros: Chemical sunscreen can be easier to apply and does not leave behind the white residue that is often associated with physical sunscreens. Chemical formulations tend to be lighter and for that reason, are often preferred by oily skin types.

The Cons: Chemical sunscreens aren’t without their own controversies, though. While generally considered to be safe (and certainly better than going without SPF), chemical sunscreens are partially absorbed into the bloodstream and the potential side effects of this are still being studied. Reef-safety and absorption concerns have become been a part of the chemical sunscreen conversation, with brands like Supergoop! phasing out some of the more controversial chemical ingredients. Chemical sunscreens may also be more irritating to sensitive skin.


The post Chemical vs. Physical Sunscreen: What’s the Difference? first appeared on Dermstore Blog.