Physical Sunscreen? Chemical Sunscreen? How do you choose?
These days something as simple as choosing a sunscreen can be very confusing. There's too much conflicting information. For example, the Environmental Working Group’s 2016 Sunscreen Guide advises against using oxybenzone, octinoxate, and other chemical sunscreens. But Consumer Reports found chemical sunscreens performed better than physical sunscreens:
“In four years of our sunscreen tests, almost half of the products failed to meet their SPF claim after water immersion—despite the fact that all featured claims of water resistance. And if you trust your skin to mineral (physical) products, you’re taking a greater chance; the mineral-only sunscreens performed far worse than the chemical formulations.”
Many people don’t know the difference between a physical sunscreen and a chemical sunscreen. It's an important distinction to learn because sunscreen is the number one recommended product to prevent skin aging and cancer.
So what is a physical sunscreen?
Physical sunscreens use natural minerals ground into a fine powder – zinc oxide or titanium dioxide (or both) – to reflect the sun’s rays. The minerals act like mirrors to reflect both UVA and UVB rays. Because this type of sunscreen stays on the surface of the skin, it has a low rate of irritation and allergic reactions. And unlike chemical sunscreens, physical sunscreens work as soon as you apply them. They come in a range of SPF levels and can be water resistant.
Physical sunscreens were called sunblock because of their ability to reflect the sun’s rays. You used to see them as a white cream on a life guard’s nose. Now they are available in tinted creams and powders. The FDA refers to this type of sunscreen as inorganic because it is not a carbon based compound.
Shawn Allen, MD, a Dermatologist from Boulder, Colorado, recommends you, “Look for SPF 30, which will block 97% UV rays but also look for zinc oxide in greater than 3% to provide coverage of UVA light and better overall protection.
SkinCeuticals makes their physical / mineral based sunscreens to be used together with antioxidants like C E Ferulic. The best sunscreens only block 55% of the sun’s rays. Antioxidants work in conjunction with mineral sunscreens to repair any damage from UV rays that get past your sunscreen.
Advantages of Physical Sunscreen:
- Does not penetrate the skin – and therefore is less irritating to skin
- Less likely to clog pores, so ideal for those with acne
- Starts working as soon as applied
- Protects from both UVA and UVB rays – is broad spectrum protection by nature
- Longer shelf life than chemical sunscreens
- Physical sunscreens are a better choice for those with redness / rosacea because they deflect the sun’s heat energy away from skin
- Sun does not degrade physical sunscreens
Disadvantages of Physical Sunscreen:
- Rub off, sweat off and rinse off easily
- Fequent reapplication is needed with activity
- Untinted formulas may look white on skin
What's a chemical sunscreen?
Chemical sunscreens work by absorbing the sun’s rays and are the most common kind of sunscreen.
More specifically, the molecules in chemical sunscreens, "absorb UV radiation through their chemical bonds. As the bonds absorb UV radiation, the components of the sunscreen slowly break down and release heat." (LiveScience.com). But because they break down, it's important to reapply chemical sunscreens frequently.
Chemical sunscreens are considered organic because they contain carbon-based ingredients like avobenzone, oxybenzone, octinoxate, and octisalate.
Organizations like the Environmental Working Group have caused some worry that chemical sunscreens can cause hormone changes. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Dr. Craig Burkhart, an associate professor of dermatology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill explains.
“That came from a study where scientists had the mice bathe in the sunscreen daily and even eat it. I don’t know of any proof of estrogen-like effects in humans.” The benefits of using any sunscreen far outweigh the outside risk of these effects.
Advantages of Chemical Sunscreen:
- Comes in a wide range of SPF levels and can be extremely water resistant
- Provide broad spectrum coverage by combining multiple ingredients; zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide are also used in some formulas.
Disadvantages of Chemical Sunscreen:
- Must be applied 20 minutes prior to sun exposure to allow the chemical time to work
- Because it penetrates skin, can cause irritation
- Some chemical sunscreens break down with sun exposure and need frequent reapplication
- Can cause burning and stinging if chemical sunscreen gets into eyes
- Because chemical sunscreen converts UV rays into heat, the skin temperature is higher. In turn, this can cause increased redness/ flushing for people with rosacea and dark spots in those prone to melasma.
- Some chemical sunscreens are safe for acne-prone skin, while others clog pores. They should be judged on a product by product basis.
- Must be used by their expiration date due to degradation of the product, which is somewhat unstable by nature
So which one is better? Physical sunscreen or chemical?
“The most important thing to remember is to use a sun protection product that blocks both UVA and UVB rays, and to use it in whatever form that will make you want to wear it every day.”
– David B. Reath, MD, Knoxville Plastic Surgeon
There Are More Choices Coming:
The European Union and Australia have many more sunscreens approved than we do here in the United States. That’s because in the U.S., sunscreen is classified by the FDA as an over-the-counter drug. Other countries classify it as a cosmetic, so their approval process is less rigorous and much quicker. We haven’t had a new sunscreen approved since 1999. There are at least 8 seeking approval, some of which have been waiting over a decade.
SkinCeuticals Physical Fusion UV Defense SPF 50: This is a broad spectrum, tinted mineral sunscreen with 5% zinc oxide and 6% titanium dioxide. A physical sunscreen with 3% zinc oxide OR MORE gives better protection from UVA (aging) rays - which is hard to find! It's light and very easy to apply. Physical Fusion has tons of great reviews and retails for around $34.
SkinCeuticals is a cosmeceutical line that also makes anti-oxidants with Vitamins C and E and Retinol which can help correct sun damage. Unsure what cosmeceuticals are? Read our blog post, Advantages of Cosmeceutical Skin Care Products.
Below are a couple of sunscreens you can find on Amazon.
Both are physical / mineral sunscreens with good percentages of zinc oxide and zero chemical sunscreen. I love that because it's hard to find. (Many sunscreens contain a combination of both physical and chemical sunscreens.)
CoTZ Face: CoTZ creates sunscreens that are free of chemical sunscreens, oils, fragrances and PABA and they have a 100% satisfaction guarantee. This sunscreen contains 8% titanium dioxide and 3.8% zinc oxide. It's tinted so it doesn't look white. There are TONS of great reviews on Amazon where it retails for around $24. I can't wait to try it!
Neutrogena Sheer Zinc Face: I use this sunscreen daily because of the whopping amount of zinc oxide - 21.6%. (Zinc oxide does a better job of protecting your skin from UVA / Aging rays.) BUT, it goes on thick and white. It's not easy to rub in and definitely leaves a whitish cast on your face. I find if I top it with a foundation slightly darker than my skin, this sunscreen works just fine. But if you prefer not to use foundation, I'd definitely go with a tinted sunscreen. The Neutrogena is very reasonably priced at around $9 on Amazon - but do check because, as you know, prices always change.
Amy Takken, RN
Amy Takken is a registered nurse with 20+ years of experience helping people improve their health. Her in-depth skincare articles have been featured on Nazarian Plastic Surgery and The Palm Beach Center for Facial Plastic & Laser Surgery.
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