Chemical Vs. Physical Sunscreens: Pros And Cons


Updated 6/1/16. Sunscreen. You know you need to wear it daily, but between physical and chemical sunscreens, how do you know which one is best for your skin type? Which kind is least likely to cause breakouts or irritate sensitive skin? Each sunscreen formula is made differently, but here is a general guide for making the best choice for your skin type.

Physical sunscreens contain active mineral ingredients, such as titanium dioxide or zinc oxide, which work by sitting on top of the skin to deflect and scatter damaging UV rays away from the skin. They are often referred to as physical blockers.

Pros of physical sunscreens:

  • Offers protection against both UVA and UVB rays and is naturally broad spectrum
  • Protects from the sun as soon as it’s applied, no wait needed
  • Lasts longer when in direct UV light (but NOT when doing physical activities that cause the skin to get wet or sweat)
  • Less likely to cause a stinging irritation on the skin, making it better for sensitive skin
  • Better for those with heat-activated skin (like those with rosacea and redness) since it deflects the heat and energy given off by the sun away from the skin
  • Less likely to be pore-clogging, making it ideal for blemish-prone skin types
  • Longer shelf life

Cons of physical sunscreens:

  • Can rub off, sweat off and rinse off easily, meaning more frequent reapplication when outdoors is needed
  • May leave a white-ish cast on the skin, making some formulas incompatible for medium to dark skin tones
  • May be too chalky and opaque for daily use under makeup
  • Can create an occlusive film, which results in increased perspiration during physical activities and, therefore, causes it to wear off more quickly
  • Can be thicker, which will require more effort to rub in
  • Can cause white drips to show on the skin when sweating
  • Can be less protective if not applied generously and accurately since UV light can get between the sunscreen molecules and get into the skin

Chemical sunscreens contain organic (carbon-based) compounds, such as oxybenzone, octinoxate, octisalate and avobenzone, which create a chemical reaction and work by changing UV rays into heat, then releasing that heat from the skin. They are often referred to as chemical or organic absorbers.

Pros of chemical sunscreens:

  • Tends to be thinner and, therefore, spreads more easily on the skin, making it more wearable for daily use
  • Less is needed to protect the skin because there is no risk of no spaces between the sunscreen molecules after application
  • Formula is easier to add additional treatment ingredients, such as peptides and enzymes, which offer other skin benefits

Cons of chemical sunscreens:

  • Can possibly cause an increase in existing brown spots and discoloration due to a higher internal skin temperature (Yes, over-heated skin can make brown spots worse. Read why here.)
  • Requires about 20 minutes after application before it begins to work
  • Increased chance of irritation and stinging (especially for those who have dry skin with a damaged moisture barrier) due to the multiple ingredients combined in order to achieve broad spectrum UVA and UVB protection
  • The higher the SPF (such as formulas of SPF 50 or greater), the higher the risk of irritation for sensitive skin types
  • The protection it offers gets used up more quickly when in direct UV light, so reapplication must be more frequent
  • Increased chance of redness for rosacea-prone skin types because it changes UV rays into heat which can exacerbate flushing
  • May clog the pores for oily skin types
  • Can cause stinging if it drips into the eyes from sweat

When it comes to sunscreen, it’s hard to say which one is truly the best for your skin since all formulas are not created equal. My best advice is to check for compatibility by doing a patch test before using it all over your face. You simply can’t always judge a product by its ingredient label.

Which type of sunscreen offers the best UVA and UVB protection? This is a huge debate among scientists. Currently, the FDA is taking steps to establish new standards of measuring the effectiveness of sunscreens more accurately in an effort to educate consumers on how best to prevent the detrimental effects of exposure to UV radiation. For now, however, both physical and chemical sunscreens will do a great job at protecting your skin, as long as you are applying them generously every morning and reapplying throughout the day. (Mineral powder sunscreens are much easier for reapplication.)

I have two great sunscreen formulas that I recommend to my clients.

Daily Protection SPF 30 uses both physical and chemical sunscreens. The zinc oxide (physical) creates a lightweight finish with natural antimicrobial agents for acne-prone skin types, whereas the octinoxate and octisalate (chemical) that is used makes it spreadable and easy to apply so it is ideal for daily use under makeup. I believe it’s best to use both physical and chemical sunscreens on your skin (if your skin is compatible with the formulas) because you’ll get both inside and outer protection. Because Daily Protection SPF 30 is not a pure physical sunscreen, celebrities like Sofia Vergara and Demi Lovato, who both have medium skin tones, find that it doesn’t leave a white-ish cast on the skin and they use it faithfully in their skin care routines every day. “Sun protection is so important. I love Daily Protection SPF 30” says Sofia Vergara. Daily Protection SPF 30 is suggested for skin types #1, #2, #3, #4, #5 and #6. Not sure of your skin type? Take my Skin Care Quiz.

Age Defense Moisturizer SPF 30 uses zinc oxide, exclusively (so it is a pure physical sunscreen). Many skin types simply cannot tolerate any chemical sunscreens so this is best for those with redness, rosacea and skin that can get irritated easily. Age Defense Moisturizer SPF 30 is recommended for fair skin types #7, #8 and #9. Not sure of your skin type? Take my Skin Care Quiz.

Another product that I often recommend (especially for easy reapplication) is to use an SPF-infused mineral powder, such as ColoreScience. It uses two physical blockers (titanium dioxide and zinc oxide) and comes in a self-dispensing brush that can be easily dusted on the skin. Since it only uses physical sunscreens, you must make sure to apply a generous coat when in direct UV light.

Which SPF number is the best to use? Higher numbers on labels are more about marketing. In fact, the FDA is proposing to ban sunscreens that are labeled with an SPF number higher than 50, since there is no scientific evidence showing that they offer any more protection than lower numbers. I recommend a minimum SPF of 30 and a maximum of 50. Read more about SPF numbers here.

I hope this gives you some helpful insight into choosing the right sunscreen for your skin type. Again, every skin type is different (which is why I believe there are nine different skin types) so you just have to experiment with various formulas. If the product is greasy, irritating and doesn’t rub in well, it will not be used properly, no matter how effective the product claims to be. Ultimately, the best sun protection for preventing premature wrinkles and the risk of skin cancer comes from finding a sunscreen you enjoy and then using it correctly.

One last thing. With any sunscreen, it’s really important to use an antioxidant serum underneath it. I recommend using Vitamin C&E Treatment because it prevents oxidative stress that leads to visible aging and can increase the effectiveness of sunscreen by four times due to the combination of vitamin C and E. Look at what happened when I applied Vitamin C&E Treatment to an apple!

Read: How To Apply Sunscreen To The Face And Neck
Read: Make Sure To Use Sunscreen When On An Airplane
Read: Five Ways To Hydrate Oily, Acne-Prone Skin Without Causing Breakouts

Which skin care products are best for you? See our nine skin types or take the Skin Type Quiz and get products recommended.

Need expert advice from a licensed esthetician? Schedule a virtual consultation to get customized advice in person, over the phone or online via Skype or FaceTime.

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