Physical vs Chemical Sunscreen: What is Right for You?


Physical vs chemical sunscreen — what is right for you? Let’s break down the difference between a physical and a chemical sunscreen and see if one is better than the other.

Physical vs Chemical Sunscreen

If you didn’t know there were two kinds of facial sunscreens out there, you’re not alone. 

A lot of us don’t give a second thought as to what kind of sunscreen we’re getting; just that we’re getting the protection we need. We know to get a broad spectrum sunscreen that would protect us from the sun’s harmful UVA and UVB rays.

But it is important to familiarize ourselves with the pros and cons of each type to help us pick the best product for our skin type and our skin condition. The better our skin feels underneath all that sunblock, the happier we’ll be to wear it everyday.

What is a physical sunscreen?

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First up, what is a physical sunscreen? 

Physical sunscreens are also called mineral sunscreens because they contain active mineral ingredients like titanium dioxide and zinc oxide. Physical sunscreens sit on top of our skin and these minerals work to block and reflect UV rays away.

What is a chemical sunscreen?

Chemical sunscreens, on the other hand, are made with UV filters like oxybenzone and avobenzone. They work by absorbing UV rays, converting them into heat, then releasing them from our skin.

Physical vs chemical sunscreen

To further understand the differences between the two, let’s see how they compare on a number of categories:

Physical vs Chemical Sunscreen

Weight and Consistency

Physical sunscreens are generally thicker in consistency so can feel heavier on the skin. You might have tried some brands that are a bit challenging to blend and spread evenly. 

On the other hand, chemical sunscreens can provide effective sun protection while maintaining a lighter weight, non-sticky formula. Some brands literally just melt into your face and you forget you’re wearing any sunscreen at all.

White Cast

This is the reason why physical sunscreens are notorious for leaving that infamous white cast. Some brands have remedied this by adding a tint into their formulation.

Chemical sunscreens usually don’t leave a white cast because it absorbs into our skin.

Waiting Time

We need to apply chemical sunscreen about half an hour before we go out precisely because they absorb into our skin. We need to give it time to penetrate our skin and work its magic.

Because it stays on our skin’s surface, physical sunscreen doesn’t need any waiting time. It protects us from the sun as soon as it’s applied.

Re-Application

Since it just sits on the surface of the skin, physical sunscreen needs re-application more often, especially if you’re swimming or you engage in physical activities during the day (i.e. you sweat a lot!).

In any case, it’s good practice to re-apply sunscreen (whatever kind) anyway if we’ve been outdoors to ensure we’re constantly protected.

Skin Type

Physical sunscreens have been known to be less irritating and cause less stinging for sensitive skin. Remember they are thicker in consistency though, so they might not be the best choice if you have oily or acne-prone skin.

It might also be the better choice for people suffering from redness or rosacea because it reflects heat away from the skin. Chemical sunscreens might worsen flushing and redness because it changes UV rays into heat.

There have been some concerns about continued use of chemical sunscreens resulting to free-radical damage (it’s when atoms are taken away from molecules in our skin, causing damage to our skin’s DNA that can speed up aging and fine lines) but most modern formulas now contain antioxidants to safeguard our skin’s health.

Which is better: physical sunscreen vs chemical sunscreen

Bare Faced Woman

So what should you pick? That is entirely up to you. 

Each kind of sunscreen has its merit; what you choose depends on your skin type, skin condition and your needs for that day.

For example, you might want to consider using physical sunscreen if you have sensitive skin or don’t always have time to wait for sunscreen magic to kick in.

I personally prefer using chemical sunscreens because it’s lightweight and leave no white cast. I have tan skin and lemme tell you — that white cast is not flattering at all.

There are physical-chemical hybrids too which try to provide you the best of both worlds.

Right now I rotate Biore UV Aqua Rich Watery Essence, Klairs Soft Airy UV Essence and La Roche-Posay Anthelios Ultra Light Face Sunscreen in my skincare routine.

I also recently discovered Rovectin Skin Essentials Aqua Soothing UV Protector.

Important things to look for when choosing sunblock

What’s important is we make sure the sunscreen we choose is (1) broad spectrum, which means it can protect us from both UVA and UVB rays, and (2) has an SPF of at least 30.

There are now different formats of sunscreen too. They come in creams, sprays, sticks and powders. 

Each one has its pros and cons (we’ll tackle that in a separate post) so all things considered, pick one that’s most convenient to use for you if that means you’re more likely to use it everyday. 

And that’s really the most important thing: we need to wear sunscreen everyday. Rain or shine. Winter or summer. It’s also recommended to wear sunscreen indoors (the sunshine can get through those nice picture windows).

It’s one of the best ways we can protect ourselves against skin cancer and premature aging. So make sure to add sunscreen to your daily skin care routine. And practice good skincare habits always.

Happy skin experimenting!

Physical vs Chemical Sunscreen

What kind of sunscreen do you use? How do you like it? I’d love to hear about it in the comments section below. 

I’ll be reviewing different sunscreen brands throughout the summer so watch this space!

And let’s get social — follow me on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook where we can get a little bit more personal and talk about skincare in real time.

6 thoughts on “Physical vs Chemical Sunscreen: What is Right for You?
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  1. What a fascinating topic. I had no idea there were differences in those applications. I guess people choose what works for them. Then there are the tanning beds and the spray-on… Interesting.

    Reply
  2. I didn’t know there was a difference, but this makes a lot of sense. I find that the physical sunscreen works much better for me. My husband hates it because it’s so thick and has that white cast to it. But I have such fair skin that it’s what I need to keep from burning.

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  3. This is a great explanation of the differences. I was never quite sure! I am trying to be much better about my sunscreens since I do lots of outdoor exercising. Thanks for the tips

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