What is the difference between 'Chemical' and 'Physical' Sunscreen?

Posted by Dermatec Skincare on

Image Credit: Colorescience


Sunscreen is one of the most important steps you can take to maintain the health and beauty of your skin.

It is indisputable that sunscreen is one of the best anti-ageing products you can use and should remain a lifelong habit to slow ageing and prevent sun damage and disease.

In my quest to find the perfect sunscreen, I found there is a major point of difference in how sunscreens and sunblocks work: either by absorbing or reflecting the sun's rays. 

If you’re confused by 'chemical' and 'physical' sunscreens, you’re not alone. I’ll break down the differences for you so you can decide which is best suited to your needs.

How Does a Chemical Sunscreen Protect the Skin?

In simple terms, a chemical sunscreen absorbs into the skin, absorbs UV rays, converts the rays into heat, and releases them from the body. This type of sunscreen actually penetrates the epidermis and dermis.

The active chemicals in these sunscreens, namely oxybenzone, octocrylene and homosalate and avobenzone function within the skin as well as on the surface to essentially soak up UVA and UVB rays like a sponge.

However, a single chemical is generally not enough to protect against both types of harmful rays. Compound formulas are more likely to provide effective broad-spectrum protection.

In addition to multiple active ingredients in a chemical sunscreen, you'll typically find antioxidants, such as vitamins C and E. Antioxidants protect the skin from free radicals, as chemical sunscreens have been shown to make skin more prone to free radical damage.

These sunscreens are usually lighter weight and are much more fluid than physical ones. They tend to feel less heavy and don’t look as chalky. However, it’s important to note that because chemical sunscreens are often present in combinations of three or four in one product, they're more likely to cause sensitivity than physical sunscreens.

Additionally, you won’t often find a chemical sunscreen in a natural brand, but some organic or green companies do include chemical sunscreens in certain types of products.


How Does a Physical Sunscreen Protect the Skin?

Physical sunscreens protect the skin in exactly the way their name suggests, they create a physical barrier between your skin and the sun.

These products don't absorb into the skin but remain on the surface. Physical sunscreens are naturally broad-spectrum, protecting against both UVA and UVB rays which is what you want in a sunscreen.

The two most common physical sunscreen ingredients are titanium dioxide and zinc oxide.

Picture that classic cricketer with a thick white paste on their nose—that’s zinc oxide in its thicker, more cruder form. Luckily, modern zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are micronised and have been developed into a sheerer formula.

Physical sunscreens are generally used in natural sunscreen products and are ideal for sensitive skin, especially children's skin. Due to the thickness of this type of sunscreen, people with oily and acne-prone need to remove it thoroughly to avoid problems. Otherwise, physical sunscreen is a safe choice.

Great brands to check out if you’re interested in a physical sunscreen are 2XP,  Eco Tan, Colorescience and Ultra Viotelle.


Would love to hear your thoughts on the difference of sunscreens.

Did you know there was a difference?


Share this post

← Older Post Newer Post →

Leave a comment