Updated 4/10/21. You already know how important it is to wear sun protection daily, but choosing the right sunscreen for your skin can get complicated. There are two types of sunscreen: physical and chemical. How do you know which is most effective? Which is best for breakout-prone or sensitive skin? Which one will give your skin the most protection?
There’s a big debate as to which type of sunscreen is the best (not to mention a lot of mixed research). In this post, I’ll explain the main differences between physical and chemical sunscreen as well as the pros and cons of each. My goal is to help you make an informed decision as to which sunscreen is best for your skin type!
Unlike chemical sunscreen, physical sunscreen contains active mineral ingredients such as titanium dioxide or zinc oxide. Physical sunscreens work by sitting on top of the skin to form a shield. They scatter damaging UV rays away from the skin. This is why they are often referred to as physical blockers.
Physical Sunscreen Pros:
- Offers protection against both UVA and UVB rays (it’s naturally broad-spectrum)
- Protects skin from the sun as soon as it’s applied; there’s no wait needed for it to take effect
- Lasts longer than chemical sunscreen when exposed to direct UV light (but NOT when doing physical activities that cause the skin to get wet or sweaty)
- Less likely to cause a stinging sensation or irritation, making it better for sensitive, easily-reactive skin types
- Better for those with heat-activated skin (like those prone to rosacea and extreme redness) since it deflects the heat given off by the sun along with UV rays
- Less likely to be pore-clogging, making it ideal for blemish-prone skin types (of course, this will also depend on the other ingredients used in a formula)
- Has a longer shelf life than chemical sunscreen
Physical Sunscreen Cons:
- Can rub, sweat, or rinse off easily, meaning more frequent reapplication is needed when outdoors
- May leave a white cast on the skin, making some formulas incompatible with darker skin tones (though tinted formulas are available)
- May create an occlusive film (barrier), which results in increased perspiration during physical activities. This can cause the sunscreen to wear off more quickly
- Tends to be thicker, which will require more effort to rub in
- Won’t offer full protection unless applied generously and accurately. Otherwise, UV light can get through gaps in the sunscreen molecules and penetrate the skin (FYI, here’s how much sunscreen you should be applying to your face and neck)
Chemical sunscreen contains organic (carbon-based) compounds such as oxybenzone, octinoxate, octisalate, and avobenzone, which create a chemical reaction. Chemical sunscreen works by absorbing UV rays and changing them into heat, then releasing that heat from the skin. As a result, UV rays are not absorbed by the skin. Because of this, they are often referred to as chemical or organic absorbers.
Chemical Sunscreen Pros:
- Tends to be thinner and, therefore, spreads more easily on the skin, making it more wearable for daily use (especially under makeup)
- Less is needed to protect the skin because there is no risk of there being gaps between the sunscreen molecules after application
- The formula is easier to add additional treatment ingredients to such as peptides, antioxidants, and enzymes. These can offer additional skin-protecting benefits
Chemical Sunscreen Cons:
- Can possibly cause an increase in existing brown spots and discoloration due to the chemical reaction that increases internal skin temperature (yes, heat can make brown spots worse)
- Requires 10-15 minutes to become effective after application
- 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 (especially formulas of SPF 50 or greater), the higher the risk of irritation for sensitive skin types
- Doesn’t last as long as physical sunscreen when exposed to direct UV light, which means 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
- The chemical ingredients oxybenzone and octinoxate have been banned in Hawaii for posing a risk to coral reefs when worn while swimming in the ocean. NOTE: This applies to water-resistant beach sunscreens only and not daily-use sunscreens or makeup with sunscreen. (Pro tip: when at the beach, this surprising thing should be your first defense against damaging sun exposure)
- Depending on the formula, could be pore-clogging (but not necessarily)
- Can cause stinging if it drips into the eyes from sweating
So Which is Better? Chemical or Physical Sunscreen?
The simple answer is…the one that feels the most comfortable on your skin. This way you’ll be more likely to wear it every day.
If you’re an oilier skin type like #1, #2, #3, or #4, you’ll enjoy wearing a sunscreen that is lightweight and non-greasy. If you consider yourself sensitive and your skin gets red easily, you’ll want to find a sunscreen that doesn’t sting the skin or make it feel irritated. If you have clogged pores and bumps, you’ll want to look for a formula that doesn’t include pore-clogging ingredients. If your skin color is deeper in tone, you’ll want a sunscreen that doesn’t look chalky on the skin. Both chemical and physical sunscreens do a great job of protecting your skin from the sun, so use whichever one feels best on your skin. That way you’ll want to wear it every day.
You’ll want to check for compatibility by doing a patch test before using any new sunscreen all over your face.
Which Sunscreen Offers the Best UVA/UVB Protection?
This is a huge debate among scientists. Currently, the FDA is taking steps to establish new standards of measuring the efficacy of sunscreens more accurately. For now, however, both physical and chemical sunscreens will do a great job of protecting your skin, as long as you are applying them generously every morning and reapplying throughout the day. Mineral powders infused with titanium dioxide are really easy to dust on for reapplication over makeup.
Which SPF Number Should You Use?
Higher numbers on labels are more about marketing. In fact, the FDA is proposing a ban on 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.
My Personal Sunscreen Recommendations
For Daily Use Under Makeup
I wear Renée Rouleau Weightless Protection SPF 30. This uses BOTH physical and chemical sunscreen filters, so I feel I get the best of both worlds. The zinc oxide (physical sunscreen) creates a lightweight finish with natural antimicrobial agents, which makes it perfect for my clogged pore-prone skin.
To enhance the effects of chemical or physical sunscreen, I faithfully wear a vitamin C serum underneath my SPF. Not only does it protect my skin from damaging free radicals, but it increases my sunscreen’s efficacy. Duke University Medical Center researchers determined that using a lotion or serum with both vitamins C and E under sunscreen actually provides four times the protection of sunscreen alone. Look what happened when I applied this vitamin C and E serum to an apple!
For Easy Reapplication Throughout the Day
I dust on an SPF-infused mineral powder every few hours throughout the day. ColoreScience and Jane Iredale make ones that I like. You can also use any pressed or loose powder makeup that contains titanium dioxide, which is one of the active ingredients used in physical sunscreens. If it doesn’t say it has SPF in it, it’s simply because the brand chose not to go through the extensive sunscreen testing needed, and therefore they aren’t marketing it as a true sunscreen. But again, if it lists titanium dioxide on the ingredient list, it will provide some sun protection.
For Outdoor Use When I’m Sweating or Swimming
I use either La Roche-Posay Anthelios SPF 50 Mineral Ultra Light Sunscreen Fluid or Neutrogena Clear Face Oil-Free Sunscreen SPF 55. Since Weightless Protection SPF 30 is meant for daily use and is not water-resistant, I’ll switch to something that will hold up better. The La Roche-Posay sunscreen uses zinc oxide exclusively, so it is a purely physical sunscreen. It rubs in fairly well but can leave a little white cast on my face. They do make it in a tinted version, so sometimes I’ll mix in a bit of that if the zinc oxide is showing up too much.
Another trick I use when I know I’ll be spending a lot of time outdoors being active is to layer sunscreens. I’ll start with a chemical sunscreen to cover my base. Then, before heading out, I’ll layer a physical sunscreen over it to create a barrier.
There are pros and cons to both physical and chemical sunscreen filters, but at the end of the day, both will protect you from UV damage as long as they’re applied liberally and often. It all comes down to choosing a formula that’s compatible with your skin so that you use sunscreen every single day. Every skin type is different, so you just have to experiment with various formulas. There is one out there that is perfect for you. Sunscreen is hands down the number one anti-aging product you can use, so find one you’ll wear 365 days a year—rain or shine, inside or out.
Next, read up on 5 skincare mistakes that could be making your sunscreen less effective.
Celebrity Esthetician & Skincare Expert
As an esthetician trained in cosmetic chemistry, Renée Rouleau has spent 30 years researching skin, educating her audience, and building an award-winning line of products. Trusted by celebrities, editors, bloggers, and skincare obsessives around the globe, her vast real-world knowledge and constant research are why Marie Claire calls her “the most passionate skin practitioner we know.”