woman applying sunscreen on the beach

We’ve all heard about the importance of sunscreen. Applying sunscreen to your skin is a powerful form of protection against harmful UV rays that penetrate the skin and potentially cause cell abnormalities. These abnormalities can lead to skin cancer, the most common type of cancer, affecting over one million people a year.

Knowing how to protect your skin is vital to preventing skin cancer, and sunscreens are just one of the many powerful ways you can do that. Picking a type of sunscreen to use, however, has its own challenges. Do you pick a physical sunscreen or a chemical sunscreen? What’s the difference?

Physical Sunscreens

Physical sunscreens are often regarded as physical blockers, as these sunscreens sit on top of the skin and literally block UV rays from penetrating the epidermis (the outer layer of the skin). Physical sunscreens contain active mineral ingredients like titanium oxide and zinc oxide.

Benefits of Physical Sunscreens

  • Protects against both UVA and UVB rays
  • Once applied, it’s immediately effective — no waiting necessary
  • Lasts longer in direct UV light
  • Better for sensitive skin
  • Better for people with skin conditions like rosacea or those suffering from redness (physical sunscreen blocks the heat that often causes these skin flare-ups)
  • Less likely to cause acne — doesn’t clog pores
  • Longer shelf life

The Cons of Physical Sunscreens

  • Frequent application is needed as it can easily come off with sweat or water
  • Can leave a white residue on the skin, making it cosmetically unappealing for people with darker skin tones
  • Not as protective if the sunscreen is not applied correctly and generously since UV rays can get through between sunscreen molecules

Chemical Sunscreens

Chemical sunscreens don’t block UV rays. Instead, chemical sunscreens contain organic compounds like oxybenzone and octinoxate, which absorb UV rays but then create a chemical reaction that changes them to heat and expels that heat from the body.

Benefits of Chemical Sunscreens

  • Thinner consistency makes it feel less heavy and is easier to apply
  • Doesn’t usually leave a white residue when applied well, making it suitable for all skin tones
  • Doesn’t need to be applied as meticulously, as the sunscreen can’t be rubbed off easily and UV rays cannot get through between sunscreen molecules like they can with physical sunscreens

The Cons of Chemical Sunscreens

  • Can increase brown spots and skin discoloration, as these kinds of spots and discoloration are often worsened by heat and chemical sunscreens don’t prevent your internal body temperature from escalating
  • Must wait at least 20 minutes after application for sunscreen to be effective
  • The ingredients in chemical sunscreens can be irritating for those with sensitive or dry skin
  • Its protective qualities are used more quickly in direct UV light, so it must be re-applied more frequently
  • May cause acne for oily skin types as it easily clogs pores
  • Can cause flare-ups for those with redness or rosacea

Which Sunscreen Should You Use?

Deciding whether to use a physical sunscreen or a chemical sunscreen comes down to what your skin profile is and what purpose you are looking to use the sunscreen for.

For instance, if you suffer from acne-prone, oily skin, then using a physical sunscreen is probably a better option for you. If you will be spending the day at the lake, however, and taking frequent dips in the water, then a chemical sunscreen will most likely be the better option for you, as it cannot be rinsed off easily.

Regardless of which sunscreen you choose to use, you will want to re-apply your sunscreen frequently throughout the day. With physical sunscreens, sweat can cause your sunscreen to become ineffective. With chemical sunscreens, their protective qualities don’t last as long in direct UV light.

If you are concerned about which sunscreen option is best for your skin and daily activities, consider speaking to a dermatologist about your options. If you want to learn more about natural sunscreen options, read our article here.


Contact Us Today! (n.d.). Retrieved April 06, 2018, from http://www.drdesjarlais.com/protecting-your-skin/chemical-vs-physical-mineral-sunscreens-pros-and-cons/
Born and raised in Southern California, Beeta has embraced a healthy lifestyle focused on farm-to-table cooking, natural products, and wellness routines. When she's not writing up recipes or discussing the latest natural living trends, Beeta enjoys spending time trying new restaurants, traveling with family and friends, and relaxing at home with her furry companion.