Know Your Sunscreen: The Difference Between Physical & Chemical Sunscreen

Sunscreens are VERY important in our daily routine. No matter if it’s for your face or body, it’s a must to put some of it all over before you get any sun exposure to protect your skin from the damaging UV rays from the sun. Ever since this viral video of sun damage was out, more people are aware of what those harmful UV rays can do to our skin. So in order to arm yourself with some good sunscreen, you have to know that there are 2 types of sunscreens in the market which is the Physical Sunscreen and the Chemical Sunscreen.

Physical Sunscreens aka Sunblock/ Mineral Sunscreen

physical sunblock

Remember how your parents used to slather those thick and gunky sunblock that gives your skin a greasy feeling and a white cast before you get to dip in the pool? Those are the physical sunblocks.

  • Usually are “broad spectrum” and made with active mineral ingredients zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide which is not absorbed by your skin so it sits on top of it to deflect the sun’s UVA and UVB rays [1].
  • Since sunblocks don’t get absorbed into your skin, it won’t irritate your skin so easily.
  • You don’t have to wait for 20 minutes for the sunblock to absorb like the usual chemical sunscreens so just slap it on and go. The downside is that you have to reapply often because it rubs off easily.
  • It lasts longer on your skin because it doesn’t decompose through sun exposure [2].
  • Nowadays, the physical sunblocks are formulated better where it won’t leave a white cast or a greasy texture which is good news for us.
  • But the zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are broken into smaller particles so that it gets absorbed into your skin like chemical sunscreen which is not a good thing because it could cause a reaction to your skin [3].

Chemical Sunscreens

chemical sunscreen

Maybe you are a bigger fan of chemical sunscreens because it doesn’t leave a greasy feeling and a white cast on your skin like the physical sunblock? Chemical sunscreens act as a UV ray filter sponge which are usually colourless and easy to apply so you tend to use it more often. But what makes it different from the sunblock?

  • Made with a range of UVB and UVA absorbing ingredients such benzones, aminobenzoic acid and cinnamates that filters and reduce ultraviolet radiation penetration to the skin so it protects you at a cellular level [4].
  • Chemical sunscreens may offer better protection against UVA and UVB rays than sunblocks but it depends on the chemical filters and its stability [5].
  • It usually takes about 20 minutes for your skin to fully absorb the sunscreen so you might have to wait for it before heading outside.
  • The bad thing is most chemical sunscreens contain oxybenzone which research has shown can penetrate into your skin and could cause allergic reactions and disrupt your hormones [6]. So try to get those that don’t contain oxybenzone.
  • It’s not recommended to people with sensitive skin because certain chemicals in the sunscreen could irritate your skin [7].

Here’s a chart to help you see the difference between physical sunscreen and chemical sunscreen:

physical vs chemical sunscreen

At the end of the day, both types of sunscreen has its pros and cons. Though most experts recommend using the physical sunblock with a steady diet of sources of lycopene such as tomatoes as the ideal sun protection [8], maybe your skin is more compatible with chemical sunscreens so it’s not good to change that either. Just remember to slap on the right type of sunscreen that suits your daily needs, reapply it every 2 hours (for the best protection) and make sure it has a SPF that is higher than SPF 15 if you are exposed to the sun a lot. Better to have sunscreen on than not, we say!


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