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Why You Should Know the Differences Between Chemical and Physical Sunscreens

July 01, 2021
By: Arootah
6 min read

While you may be meticulous about your skincare routine, prevention is key to long-term skin health. How much do you know about protection from the sun? Many are lenient about sunscreen use. With many options on the market, from broad-spectrum to all-natural, how do you know which product is best for you? Let us offer guidance to make an educated decision this summer. Whether chemical or physical sunscreen is chosen, the most critical factor in your sunscreen is that you consistently apply it.

What does SPF stand for?

SPF, sun protection factor, protects the skin against sun damage. It is measured by numbered ratings that indicate the amount of additional time you may stay in the sun without getting burnt based on your skin’s natural resistance to 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 5 hours. This does not consider other factors such as water and sweat, which decrease the effectiveness of the product.

UVA, UVB, and UVC rays

There are three types of ultraviolet rays emitted from the sun, UVA, UVB, and UVC. UVA and UVB are the most dangerous to skin; the atmosphere entirely absorbs UVC and does not pose a threat. Sunscreens labeled ‘broad spectrum’ protect against both UVA and UVB rays; 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 are 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 is 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

Now that you know the importance of sunscreen, how do you know which type 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 types, so the best solution for you will significantly depend on both your skin type and personal preferences. We always recommend research before making a decision.

Chemical sunscreens

Chemical sunscreens absorb into the bloodstream through the skin. These work by creating a chemical reaction that transmutes the UV rays into heat and 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 is a chemical sunscreen.


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


  • Typically, chemical sunscreens are only effective 20 minutes after application, meaning you have to wait some time after applying to go into the sun.
  • They are more prone to causing allergic reactions and flushing.
  • Chemical sunscreens can clog pores because they are absorbed into the skin (look for non-comedogenic sunscreens if you are 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

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

Glow Oil SPF 50

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.


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

Physical sunscreens

Physical or mineral-based sunscreens do not absorb into the skin like chemical sunscreens. They rest on the top layer and make a barrier between us and the sun’s rays. They work by reflecting the rays away from the body so as not to penetrate the skin layers. 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 is easy to add them to a foundation for sun protection.


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


  • Since they sit on top of the skin, they are not fast-absorbing and can feel heavy.
  • Physical sunscreen does not 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 an even coat; anywhere that is not covered is susceptible to burning. 
  • Though water-resistant brands are available, zinc washes off easily from water and sweat; it is 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

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

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. 


While you are 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 glass of the windows in your home and car as well as shine through the clouds during cloudy days. Even the blue light emanating from your laptop and smartphone can cause aging, so sunscreen is necessary every 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 are covered. Apply every 2 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 is a potential that marine life and coral reefs could ingest them, causing severe internal damage. If reef conservation concerns you, then it is best to find a sunscreen that is 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

While there are chemical and physical sunscreens, the most critical factor in your sunblock is that you consistently apply it. No matter what sunblock you use, make sure that you wear it, especially throughout the summer. Skin cancer is prevalent and protecting yourself now is the best way to prevent exposure to the cancer-causing rays. Sun rays can penetrate through light cloud covers, so just because it isn’t sunny doesn’t mean you should skip applying your SPF. Light reflects off many surfaces, intensifying the exposure. Don’t forget to add other forms of protection like sun hats, glasses, or UV protection clothing designed to withstand the harmful rays. 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. Think twice before going into the sun.

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!



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

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

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


Information provided by Arootah is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment, or to replace a one-on-one relationship with a qualified health care professional. Individual articles are based upon the opinions of the respective author. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of any information made available herein or otherwise through any of Arootah’s Programs and Services. You should consult your physician or other licensed health care professional before starting any diet, exercise plan or regimen, or any other fitness or wellness program. If you are pregnant, nursing, taking medication, or have medical condition, consult your health care professional before using products based on this content.

TAGS: Skincare

By: Arootah

1 Comment

  1. Such a complicated topic lol Can’t someone just buy me the right bottle?


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