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Blog > Physical vs. Chemical Sunscreen: Which One Should You Use?

The Arootah Return Blog

Physical vs. Chemical Sunscreen: Which One Should You Use?

Physical and chemical sunscreens offer varying protection from the sun. Learn the differences between the two, plus the pros and cons.
Woman wearing straw hat and bathing suit applying sunscreen on the beach

Even if you’re meticulous about your skincare routine, prevention is key to long-term skin health. But some of us may tend to get lenient about our sunscreen use.  

With so many options on the market, from broad-spectrum to all-natural, it can be difficult to know which product is best for you. 

We’re sharing guidance to help you make an educated decision. But whether you reach for chemical or physical sunscreen, the most critical factor is that you consistently apply it. 

SPF, Explained

SPF, or sun protection factor rating, protects your skin against sun damage. It’s measured by numbered ratings that indicate the amount of additional time you may stay in the sun without getting burned based on your skin’s natural resistance to ultraviolet (or, UV) rays. For example, if you could last 10 minutes without burning, an SPF of 30 would allow for you to safely remain in the sun 30 times longer, allotting you 300 minutes, or five hours. This doesn’t consider other factors such as water and sweat, which decrease the effectiveness of the product. 

UVA, UVB, and UVC Rays: What’s the Difference?

The sun emits three types of ultraviolet rays: ultraviolet A (UVA), ultraviolet B (UVB), and ultraviolet C (UVC). UVA and UVB are the most dangerous to skin; the atmosphere entirely absorbs UVC, therefore it doesn’t pose a threat.  

Sunscreens labeled “broad spectrum” protect against UVA and UVB rays, so be sure to look for this label on your sunscreen. For sunscreen to be effective against sun damage, it must protect against both types of rays. Zinc and titanium-based physical lotions naturally protect against UVA and UVB rays. 

UVA radiation is composed of long-wave rays that penetrate deep into the skin. These rays cause your skin to tan, but they’re also responsible for wrinkles and premature aging. UVB radiation is comprised of short-wave rays that affect the superficial layers of the skin. UV rays damage the skin by causing redness, sunburn, and, eventually, skin cancer. Both types of rays have the potential to damage the skin.  

Sunlight brings a high impact to everything it touches. It can dry out the leaves of a plant, fade color, and deteriorate fabrics. It’s vital to protect against the sun’s intense force by staying hydrated, staying out of the sun during intense sunshine, covering your skin, and of course, applying sunscreen. 

Chemical vs. Physical sunscreens

So, how do you know which type of sunscreen to apply? While there are many different formulas on the market, there are two basic sunscreen types: chemical and physical. There are benefits to both, so the best solution for you will depend on your skin type and personal preferences. Before you decide, you’ll want to do your research. 

Chemical Sunscreens

Chemical sunscreens absorb into the bloodstream through your skin. These work by creating a chemical reaction that transmutes the UV rays into heat, then releases them from the body. These chemicals have been found in breast milk and blood samples long after applying sunscreen; however, no studies suggest side effects. If sunscreen is made with ingredients like oxybenzone or avobenzone, it’s a chemical sunscreen. 

Pros:

  • Chemical sunscreens are fast-absorbing and lightweight 
  • They don’t leave streaks or visible marks on the skin, giving a more natural look 
  • This type of sunscreen may aesthetically be better for everyday wear, as it blends seamlessly with makeup 
  • Many water-resistant or waterproof options are available, improving beach coverage and minimizing the number of applications needed 

Cons:

  • Typically, chemical sunscreens are only effective 20 minutes after application, so you’ll need to wait before going outside into the sun 
  • They’re more prone to cause allergic reactions and flushing 
  • Chemical sunscreens can clog pores because they’re absorbed into the skin (look for non-comedogenic sunscreens if you’re prone to breakouts) 
  • The shelf-life is limited 
  • The active chemical ingredients in these sunscreens harm coral reefs; there are extensive studies done on the negative impacts on our ocean’s wildlife 

Our Favorite Chemical Sunscreens:

Unseen Sunscreen SPF 40
$20-36

This sunscreen for the face is fast-absorbing, completely sheer, and even mattifies.  

Glow Oil SPF 50
$15-$38 

For the body, this sunscreen will leave your skin glistening in the sun! Never greasy, this formula absorbs quickly. It is refreshingly hydrating to apply. 

Anthelios Ultra Light Fluid Facial Sunscreen SPF 60
$30.99

This sunscreen by La Roche Posay is super lightweight, fast-absorbing, and has a semi-matte finish.  

Physical Sunscreens

Physical or mineral-based sunscreens don’t absorb into the skin like chemical sunscreens. They rest on the top layer of your skin, creating a barrier between the sun’s rays. They work by reflecting rays away from the body. The most common active ingredients that indicate a physical sunscreen are titanium dioxide or zinc oxide. You’ve probably seen these ingredients in your makeup, as it’s easy to add them to a foundation for sun protection. 

Pros: 

  • Physical sunscreens are effective immediately, so there’s no lag time after applying before you can go into the sun 
  • It’s recommended for sensitive skin types since it is uncommon to react to zinc-based physical sunscreens 
  • Since the sunscreen isn’t entering through your pores, it likely won’t cause breakouts or acne
  • Physical sunscreens tend to have a longer shelf-life than chemical sunscreens 
  • They’re much friendlier towards our oceans than chemical sunscreens 

Cons:

  • Since they sit on top of the skin, they’re not fast-absorbing and can feel heavy 
  • Physical sunscreen doesn’t blend in as evenly as chemical sunscreens 
  • Physical sunscreens tend to leave a noticeable white cast on the skin and can often be challenging to apply evenly; anywhere that isn’t covered is susceptible to burning 
  • Though water-resistant brands are available, zinc washes off easily from water and sweat; it’s challenging to obtain consistent coverage during a beach day, so more applications are necessary 
  • Waterproof formulas usually occur when the manufacturer includes wax to build resistance towards the water 
  • Titanium versions can be a little more irritating on the skin, so look for zinc if you have sensitivities 

Our Favorite Physical Sunscreens:

Mattescreen SPF 40
$20-$38 

Since physical sunscreens give a white cast, take advantage of that coverage with a tinted formula to even your skin tone. 

Bright-Eyed 100% Mineral Eye Cream SPF 40
$38

Use a formula specifically for the eyes. This physical sunscreen by Supergoop! is excellent because it doesn’t “travel” (i.e., sting your eyes) and brightens under your eyes.  

Anthelios Mineral SPF Moisturizer with Hyaluronic Acid
$34.99 

While you’re sitting in the humidity, you might as well absorb some of that hydration with the help of hyaluronic acid.  

When to Wear Sunscreen

Every day! The best way to prevent aging and skin cancer is with the consistent application of sunscreen. The sun’s rays emanate through the windows in your home and car, as well as shine through the clouds on overcast days. Even the blue light emanating from your laptop and smartphone can cause aging, so sunscreen is necessary every single day. 

How You Apply It Matters

A good rule of thumb is to apply a finger’s worth to each appendage, or a shot-glass complete for your entire body. Rub it in to make sure you have an even application. Give time for it to sink in and apply a second layer to ensure you’re covered. Apply every two hours or after swimming or sweating. Keep the bottle out of the sun to protect the ingredients’ potency.  

Don’t forget these commonly missed places!

  • Lips 
  • Eyelids 
  • Ears 
  • Back of the neck 
  • Hands 
  • Feet 

Reef Conservation

With many sunscreen ingredients, there’s a potential that marine life and coral reefs could ingest them, causing severe internal damage. If reef conservation concerns you, it’s best to find a sunscreen that’s marine-safe or coral reef-safe. Many manufacturers alter the mineral particles in natural, physical sunscreens to be smaller to help with absorption. Nanoparticles are the altered minerals within the active ingredient. To find out more about nanoparticles, click here. 

The Bottom Line

What sunscreen you use is a personal choice. The most important thing is that you use one. 

Skin cancer is prevalent and protecting yourself is the best way to prevent exposure to cancer-causing rays. Just because the sun isn’t shining doesn’t mean you should skip the SPF.  

Every little action you take to protect your body and stay healthy now has a monumental impact on the quality of life you will live in the future.  

It may be a hard choice between chemical or physical sunscreens. Which do you prefer, or do you use both? Let us know your preference in the comments below! 

  

Sources: 

Physical Sunscreen vs. Chemical Sunscreen: How to Choose UV Protection (utopia.org) 

The Aging Effects of UV Rays – Skin and Beauty Center – Everyday Health 

How Do I Protect Myself from Ultraviolet (UV) Rays? (cancer.org) 

Disclaimer: This article is for general informational purposes only and is not intended to be and should not be taken as professional medical, psychological, legal, investment, financial, accounting, or tax advice. Arootah does not warrant or guarantee the accuracy, reliability, completeness, or suitability of its content for a particular purpose. Please do not act or refrain from acting based on anything you read in our newsletter, blog or anywhere else on our website.

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