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The Difference Between Physical and Chemical Sunscreen

June 21, 2019

You already know that you need to wear sunscreen every day—and we really do mean every day (even if it’s cloudy out)! The sun isn’t just a summer’s skin care concern, it’s something you need to be cautious about all year round. However, a stroll down the sunscreen aisle can get confusing pretty quickly. For starters, there are tons of different SPF levels, different ingredients to choose from and various types of lotions, sprays and sticks. All of this information might leave you wondering what is the best sunscreen—chemical sunscreen or physical sunscreen (also known as mineral sunscreen)? Keep reading to learn about the details on both types of sunscreen, as well as the benefits and drawbacks of each option. Becoming more informed on sunscreens will allow you to protect yourself and those you love. 


All sunscreen works on the skin by absorbing or shielding the sun’s rays, according to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD). However, chemical and physical sunscreens work differently to do this. Chemical sunscreen works by using ingredients like oxybenzone and others that are actually absorbed into the top layer of the skin. When taken into the skin, they react with the skin to absorb UV rays and convert them into energy before they can cause damage. In other words, the AAD states that the chemicals act like a sponge to absorb the sun’s rays as they hit your skin. Since these chemicals need to be absorbed into the skin in order to work, chemical sunscreens have to be applied at least 30 minutes before heading outdoors. One main advantage of using chemical sunscreens is that they tend to leave less of a white cast on the skin, especially for people with darker skin tones, versus physical sunscreen.


Physical sunscreen, also known as mineral sunscreen, acts like a shield on the skin (rather than a sponge), according to the AAD. This type of sunscreen contains active ingredients like titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, which sit on the skin’s surface and deflect the sun’s rays. While physical sunscreen is typically thicker than chemical sunscreen, a bit harder to rub in, and might leave a white residue behind, it is the smarter choice for those with sensitive skin, per the AAD.


As is the case with so many things in life, the answer to this question totally depends on you, as well as how much sun exposure you will have. The AAD always recommends using a broad-spectrum sunscreen that protects against both UVA and UVB rays with an SPF value of 30 or more. If you’re debating between using chemical and physical sunscreen, you may not even have to choose—many broad-spectrum sunscreens for sale in the U.S. actually combine several different chemical and physical sunscreen ingredients.


A couple of the ingredients often found in chemical sunscreens have been the subject of much conversation over the past few years. We’re talking about oxybenzone and octinoxate. According to the AAD, every chemical sunscreen out there contains one or more of the following active ingredients: oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate, or octinoxate. The use of sunscreens containing two of these ingredients, oxybenzone and octinoxate, has been banned by the state of Hawaii because of their damaging effects on marine environment. According to the legislature of the state of Hawaii, these chemicals have been found to increase coral reef bleaching that can cause damage to coral and other marine animals. If you’re looking for a sunscreen without oxybenzone and octinoxate, one easy option is to stick with a physical sunscreen. If you prefer chemical sunscreens, you can still use formulas with avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, or homosalate as active ingredients, like the L’Oréal Paris Revitalift Triple Power Day Lotion SPF 30 which is a daily moisturizer for the face with added SPF protection.


In addition to wearing sunscreen and re-applying it often, if you plan to spend an extended amount of time outdoors, the FDA recommends that everyone take other sun safety measures as well. These include limiting your time in the sun, especially between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. when the sun’s rays are most intense, wearing clothing to cover exposed skin, and tossing on a pair of sunglasses and a wide-brimmed hat. And don’t forget to reapply your sunscreen if you are sweating or swimming.

Photo Credit: Chaunte Vaughn

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