Physical Sunscreen vs. Chemical | Which Is Better?

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:

  1. Does not penetrate the skin – and therefore is less irritating to skin
  2. Less likely to clog pores, so ideal for those with acne
  3. Starts working as soon as applied
  4. Protects from both UVA and UVB rays – is broad spectrum protection by nature
  5. Longer shelf life than chemical sunscreens
  6. Physical sunscreens are a better choice for those with redness / rosacea because they deflect the sun’s heat energy away from skin
  7. Sun does not degrade physical sunscreens

Disadvantages of Physical Sunscreen:

  1. Rub off, sweat off and rinse off easily
  2. Fequent reapplication is needed with activity
  3. 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." ( 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.

little boy applying sunscreen with a smiling sun design to his dad's back | Physical Sunscreen vs. Chemical | Which Is Better? | Masterpiece Skin Restoration

Advantages of Chemical Sunscreen:

  1. Comes in a wide range of SPF levels and can be extremely water resistant
  2. Provide broad spectrum coverage by combining multiple ingredients; zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide are also used in some formulas.
sunglasses, green sandals, towel and sunscreen on brown deck | Physical Sunscreen vs. Chemical | Which Is Better? | Masterpiece Skin Restoration

Disadvantages of Chemical Sunscreen:

  1. Must be applied 20 minutes prior to sun exposure to allow the chemical time to work
  2. Because it penetrates skin, can cause irritation
  3. Some chemical sunscreens break down with sun exposure and need frequent reapplication
  4. Can cause burning and stinging if chemical sunscreen gets into eyes
  5. 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.
  6. Some chemical sunscreens are safe for acne-prone skin, while others clog pores. They should be judged on a product by product basis.
  7. Must be used by their expiration date due to degradation of the product, which is somewhat unstable by nature

Masterpiece Skin Restoration is your online resource for all things medical aesthetics, skincare, beauty, and wellness. We keep you up to date on leading edge technology and the services available to help you restore your natural beauty.

We have all the information you need to restore your skin.

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The Information provided on our website is not medical advice and should not be viewed as such. By law, only a medical doctor can diagnose or give medical advice. As a registered nurse, my goal is to educate, so I provide information on skin care, skin care products, and skin care treatments. If you have any condition that concerns you, please see a medical doctor. While most skin conditions are benign, some – like melanoma – can be deadly. If there is any doubt, please, please consult your physician. Thank you!

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