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Key Differences: Physical Sunscreens vs. Chemical Sunscreens

Sep 10th 2021

Key Differences: Physical Sunscreens vs. Chemical Sunscreens

Believe it or not, sunscreen is beneficial all year round. Whether you’re out on the beach enjoying the summer sun or working next to a window on a cloudy winter day, harmful UV rays are always present.

Your first step after finding out you need to protect your skin from the sun on a daily basis is to choose the right product. But with so many different types of sunscreens out there, how do you know which one to choose?

Let’s narrow it down to the two most common types of sun protective products: chemical and physical sunscreens. In short, chemical sunscreens work by absorbing and scattering UV rays. On the other hand, physical sunscreens function by filtering out UV rays through a created barrier on your skin.

In addition to their method of protecting your skin from UV rays, there are several key differences between physical sunscreens and chemical sunscreens. Let’s explore these differences to help you determine which sunscreen is right for your skincare routine.

But first, let’s dive a little deeper into defining physical and chemical sunscreens.

What Are Physical Sunscreens?

Physical sunscreens are the products we like to refer to as sunblocks, as they actively block UV rays from penetrating your skin. Their formulations include ingredients derived from minerals, such as titanium dioxide, zinc oxide, or a combination of the two. Elta MD UV Sheer is a great example of a quality physical sunscreen from a trusted brand.

The Benefits

The benefits of physical sunblocks offer a variety of advantages, including the following:

  • Reliable protection from a wide range of damaging UVA and UVB rays
  • Safe for use during pregnancy
  • Safe for use on babies and young children
  • Instant protection from the moment the product is applied
  • Gentle enough for use on sensitive skin
  • Photostable (won’t weaken after the sun hits it)
  • Less likely to clog pores

The Disadvantages

Like all things, physical sunscreens aren’t all-beneficial. These products also have some cons, such as:

  • They require frequent, generous application
  • Some sunscreens appear white on the skin
  • Formula feels heavy and can contribute to more perspiration
  • Leaves behind a film

What Are Chemical Sunscreens?

Chemical sunscreens are also referred to as organic sunscreens. These products feature a chemical makeup that works to absorb UV rays. Some common chemicals found in these products include oxybenzone, octisalate, octinoxate, and avobenzone. These powerful chemicals work by actively changing UV rays into heat, which then scatters from the skin.

The Benefits

As with physical sunscreens, chemical sun protection products also have a variety of advantages. Benefits of chemical sunscreens include:

  • Thinner, more easily absorbed formula
  • Smaller amounts of sunscreen are needed in order to protect from UV rays
  • Easy application makes them better suited for daily use

The Disadvantages

Chemical sunscreens also come with a few disadvantages, including:

  • Less gentle on the skin, contributing to risk of irritation and stinging
  • Requires the applicant to wait approximately 20 minutes before the product starts to be effective
  • Ability to transform UV rays into heat can aggravate flushing, which can be problematic for individuals with rosacea or rosacea-prone skin types
  • Can clog pores and contribute to acne breakouts
  • Oxybenzone has been linked to allergic reactions

The Difference Between Physical and Chemical Sunscreens

Now that you know what both types of sunscreens are, we can dive into the similarity and key differences between physical sunscreens and chemical sunscreens.

The sole similarity between sunscreens and sunblocks is that they both protect you from the sun’s harmful UV rays.

The difference between the products, as you may have gleaned from the descriptions above, are numerous.

Means of Protection

  • Chemical products absorb into the skin, convert the UV rays into heat, and deflect them from the body.
  • Physical products do not absorb into the skin. Instead, they form a barrier on top of the skin and reflect UV rays.

Ingredient Potency

  • Chemical sunscreens’ numerous ingredients and chemical composition may contribute to irritation and stinging.
  • Physical sunscreens are typically formulated with more gentle ingredients, making them more suitable for sensitive skin.

Application Frequency

  • Chemical sunscreens tend to be water-resistant. Due to their ability to perform regardless of sweat, water, or brushes against clothing, they don’t need to be applied as frequently. Sunscreen is a better option for sports, very hot days, and water activities.
  • Physical sunscreens tend to come off easily when in contact with water, sweat, or clothing. Because of this, they need to be applied more frequently.

How To Choose the Right Product

With so many benefits, disadvantages, and differences, it can be difficult to determine which sun protection product is right for you. There are a few things you can consider when choosing the perfect product, including:

  • Skin type. If your skin is sensitive, prone to breakouts, or prone to rosacea, you may benefit from a physical rather than a chemical sunscreen.
  • Activities: What activities will you be partaking in? If you need an everyday sunscreen, plan on sweating a lot, or swimming, a chemical formula is best.
  • Expiration date. No matter which product you choose, it will be ineffective and potentially cause irritation if it’s expired. Be sure to check the expiration date before you buy and apply.
  • Skin tone. If you have a darker skin tone, you may have trouble finding a physical sunscreen that doesn’t make your skin appear pasty, especially in photos. A chemical sunscreen or a tinted physical sunscreen may be your best bet.

No matter which product you choose, the most important thing is that you protect your skin from the sun. Exposure to the sun’s harmful rays contributes to a variety of skin problems and concerns, including painful sunburns, premature aging, cell damage, and even skin cancer.

It is important to understand that the sun continues to produce harmful UV rays year-round, no matter the weather conditions or season. UV rays can be just as damaging on a cloudy late autumn day, a sunny spring afternoon, or a hot summer day. UV rays also can be magnified by materials and elements, such as concrete, snow, and water.

Key Differences: Physical Sunscreens vs. Chemical Sunscreens