What’s the Difference Between Physical and Chemical Sunscreen?

smiling woman applying SPF

We’ve come a long way since we used to absentmindedly toss a bottle of sunblock into our beach bag on our way out the door, but there are still many misconceptions and debate about when to use sunscreen (answer: every. single. day.), the type of sunscreen that’s best for your skin, which ingredients are safe and effective, and how often you should re-apply.

From benzene to oxybenzone and zinc oxide to titanium dioxide, there is no shortage of ingredients, buzzwords and headlines to sort through when it comes to sun protection. And just when you think you’ve found your SPF BFF, new information emerges that challenges its effectiveness or safety.

One particular point of contention is the debate between physical and chemical sunscreen. In fact, a quick Google inquiry “should I use physical or chemical sunscreen?” offers up over six million results with varying perspectives from experts. Rather than ask “which is better?”, it’s better to reframe the question to ask, “which is better for you?” We explain the difference between physical and chemical sunscreen so you can determine the right product to buy that will keep your skin healthy and protected against harmful rays and sun damage.

What Is Physical Sunscreen?

As its name suggests, physical sunscreen, or more commonly referred to as mineral sunscreen, sits on the surface of the skin and acts as a physical barrier against ultraviolet (UV) rays. Powerhouse ingredients like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide block UV rays from penetrating skin. However, depending on the product, you may notice that the lotion’s consistency feels chalky and thick which some say feels uncomfortable on your body, especially your face. The dense consistency can also make it more challenging to apply and can leave behind a pasty residue. Fortunately, physical sunscreen products have evolved and now offer formulations that are lightweight, tinted and sheer.

What we love about physical sunscreen is that we can apply and step out into the sun without having to wait for it to activate. And because it doesn’t absorb into the skin, physical products are less likely to cause skin irritation or breakouts—a huge win in our book!

What Is Chemical Sunscreen?

If you find yourself hesitating over the word “chemical”, rest assured that it doesn’t mean your sunscreen is filled with harmful chemicals. Rather, the reference to chemical is speaking to the chemical reaction that happens when your skin is exposed to UV rays. Unlike physical SPF that deflects UV rays, it instead absorbs them into the skin and then converts the radiation into heat which is released from the skin within a half hour. That’s why it’s recommended to apply chemical sunscreen 20 to 30 minutes prior to sun exposure.

We recommend familiarizing yourself with the key ingredients that act as compounds to create the protective chemical reaction: oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate and octinoxate. Although these ingredients have been approved by the Federal Drug Administration (FDA), chemical sunscreen has recently come under scrutiny causing the FDA to update their guidelines on approved ingredients. The FDA’s closer look is a result of studies that have shown that the ingredients—while safe—are absorbed into the bloodstream at more significant levels than they initially thought.

In terms of pros and cons, chemical sunscreen comes with both. On one hand, it doesn’t leave behind a filmy residue when applied. Its skin absorption rate is better, so it tends to be a more comfortable product on your body and one that pairs well with other skin products. More importantly, it seems to offer longer-lasting protection when compared to its physical counterpart which means you may have to apply it less often (unless your skin is wet or sweaty). On the other hand, because your skin absorbs the ingredients in chemical SPF, you’re more likely to have an allergic reaction to the products, especially if you have sensitive skin. It can also exacerbate melasma and rosacea, two conditions that affect skin pigment.  

Is Physical Sunscreen or Chemical Better for You?

That’s up to you! The main differences between chemical and physical sunscreen are the ingredients and the methods they use to protect our skin from the sun. What’s most important is that you wear sunscreen and incorporate it into your everyday life, no matter what your plans are for the day or where you live. For everyday use, a lightweight chemical sunscreen (think about your favorite moisturizer with SPF protection) may be more practical for you. Alternatively, physical sunscreen products are improving and offer tinted options that won’t leave a thick white film on your face.

We prefer physical sunscreen because zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are natural minerals that don’t need to be absorbed to be effective. It also offers broad-spectrum protection, meaning it protects against both UVA and UVB rays. UVA rays cause wrinkles and age spots (no thanks!) and UVB rays cause sunburn (ouch!), so having a physical barrier against both is your best bet. Last, but certainly not least, physical SPF is safer for the environment—coral reefs especially. The oxybenzone in chemical products has been known to cause significant damage to the oceans’ coral reefs.

Sunscreen Products That Have Earned Our Stamp of Approval

As a beauty brand that puts a premium on clean beauty alternatives, we have high expectations for products that touch our skin, especially our face. We always search for products that are free from parabens, artificial dyes, and animal-cruelty testing. Our other non-negotiable? They have to work, and they have to work well. That’s why our Waxing the City studios carry MyChelle Dermaceutical sunscreens. Not only are they made with clean ingredients, they also feature our favorite SPF superstars: titanium dioxide and zinc oxide.

For your body, we can’t get enough of MyChelle’s Replenishing Solar Defense Body Lotion. Not only does it offer 100 percent zinc oxide protection, it offers UVA/UVB broad-spectrum protection which protects against premature aging and irritating sunburn. Its hydrating formula is easy to apply on skin making it the perfect beach companion after a wax.

For your face, we recommend Sun Shield Liquid SPF by MyChelle. It’s easy to apply thanks to the sheer, lightweight formula that results in a matte finish. And bonus! Sun Shield comes in two tinted colors: nude and natural tan so you can easily blend with your makeup or wear as a standalone product.

When in doubt, talk to your dermatologist who will have specific recommendations based on your skin. Regardless, make sure to lather on the SPF this summer especially after a wax. If you’ve ever had a sunburn after a wax, we know we don’t have to tell you twice!

Share on facebook
Share on pinterest
Share on twitter
Share on email