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

Before you stock up on sun­screen for the sum­mer, it’s impor­tant to know that not all sun­screen is cre­at­ed equal. There are two cat­e­gories of sun­screen, based on the spe­cif­ic ingre­di­ents that make up the prod­uct. Our der­ma­tol­o­gists explain the dif­fer­ence between the two types of sun­screen, their unique ben­e­fits and fac­tors to con­sid­er when mak­ing your sun pro­tec­tion selection. 

Phys­i­cal Sunscreen

Sun­screens that con­tain active ingre­di­ents such as zinc and/​or tita­ni­um are con­sid­ered phys­i­cal sun­screens and act as a shield for your skin. UVA and UVB rays bounce off the phys­i­cal sun­screen, pro­tect­ing your skin from sun dam­age. Phys­i­cal sun­screens are great options for peo­ple with sen­si­tive or acne-prone skin as their ingre­di­ents typ­i­cal­ly do not clog your pores and have less risk of caus­ing an aller­gic reac­tion. There is no down­time required with this type of sun­screen as it is acti­vat­ed as soon as it is applied. 

Phys­i­cal sun­screens can be a lit­tle less water resis­tant than chem­i­cal sun­screen, so you will need to reap­ply often. These sun­screens can also be thick­er and heav­ier than chem­i­cal sun­screens and can leave a white residue behind upon application. 

Chem­i­cal Sunscreen

Chem­i­cal sun­screens pro­tect your skin by absorb­ing UV rays and then dis­pers­ing the rays as heat. Sun­screens are clas­si­fied as chem­i­cal if they con­tain absorb­ing ingre­di­ents such as avoben­zone, octi­nox­ate and oxy­ben­zone1. This sun­screen absorbs into the skin, mak­ing it a great option for those engag­ing in phys­i­cal or water-based activ­i­ties while wear­ing the prod­uct. Chem­i­cal sun­screens are eas­i­er to apply and use less prod­uct since they are a light­weight formula.

Plan your chem­i­cal sun­screen appli­ca­tion accord­ing­ly as it takes 15 to 30 min­utes to ful­ly absorb into your skin to aid in sun pro­tec­tion. Chem­i­cal sun­screens often uti­lize more ingre­di­ents than phys­i­cal sun­screens to match the high, broad-spec­trum pro­tec­tion. The more ingre­di­ents that a sun­screen con­tains, the high­er the risk of an aller­gic reac­tion or skin sen­si­tiv­i­ty. For chil­dren and preg­nant or breast­feed­ing women, phys­i­cal sun­screens are recommended.

All sun­screens

Whether you choose to use chem­i­cal or phys­i­cal sun­screen, look for the fol­low­ing key­words on the product: 

  • Broad-spec­trum – this ensures that the sun­screen will block out both UVA and UVB rays 
  • Fra­grance free – sun­screens with­out a fra­grance will help min­i­mize skin sensitivity 
  • Non-come­do­genic ingre­di­ents – these ingre­di­ents will not block your pores or increase oil production 
  • SPF 30 – this lev­el of UV pro­tec­tion is rec­om­mend­ed by the Amer­i­can Acad­e­my of Der­ma­tol­ogy. The high­er the SPF num­ber, the greater lev­el of pro­tec­tion you will have from sun dam­age1

Whichev­er type of sun­screen you choose, both play a cru­cial role in pre­vent­ing skin can­cers such as melanoma. Learn more about the best sun­screen for you by sched­ul­ing an appoint­ment with a der­ma­tol­o­gist online or by call­ing your pre­ferred location. 

1IS SUN­SCREEN SAFE? (2019, Feb­ru­ary 21). In Amer­i­can Acad­e­my of Der­ma­tol­ogy Asso­ci­a­tion. Retrieved from https://​www​.aad​.org/​p​u​b​l​i​c/eve…