What’s the Difference Between Physical and Chemical Sunscreens, Anyway?

What’s the Difference Between Physical and Chemical Sunscreens, Anyway?
Photo: Courtesy of Adobe.

Scroll To See More Images

In the singular effort to get you to wear some—any!—sunscreen at all on a daily basis, most experts neglect to tell you what kind of sunscreen you should actually wear. Finally, we’re here to break down the differences between physical vs. chemical sunscreens once and for all. Regardless of what Gwyneth Paltrow says about SPF, sunscreen is essential. This’ll be fun-ish, I promise.

Physical sunscreens (also known as mineral sunscreens) create an invisible shield on top of the skin’s surface (well, it should be invisible, but some formulas err on the chalky side). “They’re made up of finely powdered minerals, usually zinc oxide and titanium dioxide,” says dermatologist Annie Chiu. “These minerals sit on the skin and block UV radiation by reflecting it,” providing protection against both UVB and UVA light. They’re like an umbrella for your face, on your face. And if you’re blessed with super-sensitive skin, Dr. Chiu recommends physical formulas with titanium oxide—or, even better, formulas for children and babies.

Chemical sunscreens, which absorb the sun’s rays rather than reflect them, usually have active ingredients that start with O, such as octinoxate, octocrylene, octisalate, and oxybenzone—but homosalate and avobenzone, among others, are also the chemical kind. “These chemicals act as filters and reduce ultraviolet radiation penetration to the skin,” says Dr. Chiu. “They usually contain UVB-absorbing chemicals and more recently contain UVA-absorbers as well.”  Essentially, they take the hit instead of you. Formula-wise, chemical options glide on pretty easy, usually without piling up so they’re great additions to makeup. The main downside? They can be irritating to sensitive skin or skin with a damaged moisture barrier.

But that’s a misplaced fear, says Dr. Chiu. “Multiple studies have shown that nanoparticles do not penetrate living skin and that they pose no risk to human health.” The big picture: “Preventing skin cancer and sunburn outweigh any unproven claims of toxicity or human health hazard from ingredients in sunscreens.” Scroll through below to check out our favorite formulas from both categories.

Our mission at STYLECASTER is to bring style to the people, and we only feature products we think you’ll love as much as we do. Please note that if you purchase something by clicking on a link within this story, we may receive a small commission of the sale.

Physical Sunscreens

STYLECASTER | physical vs chemical sunscreen

Courtesy of La Roche-Posay.

La Roche-Posay Anthelios 50 Mineral Extra Light Sunscreen Fluid

If you want mineral protection but have found zinc formulas irritating in the past, try this best-selling formula. It’s slightly tinted to ward off that ghostly pallor, and best of all, you get more for your money. Win-win.

STYLECASTER | physical vs chemical sunscreen

Courtesy of Drunk Elephant.

Drunk Elephant Umbra Sheer Physical Defense SPF 30

The ingredient list—aloe, algae extract, and natural oils such as jojoba, marula, and coconut—make it as much a skin-care product as it is a sunscreen. It gives a boost to makeup too—all that zinc makes your pores blurry. Watch what you put under it, though—most zincs require a quality foundation to go on smoothly and not pile up. If you have a vitamin C serum in your regimen (and you should), lay it on before you put on your zinc sunscreen, let it fully soak in, and bask in your own glow.

STYLECASTER | physical vs. chemical sunscreen

Courtesy of CeraVe.

CeraVe 100% Mineral Sunscreen SPF 30

“This is a great choice for those with dry skin,” says Dr. Chiu, who recommends this gentle formula for sensitive skin. Plus, the wide nozzle means you’ll cover a lot of ground quickly.

Chemical Sunscreens

STYLECASTER | physical vs. chemical sunscreen

Courtesy of Coola.

Coola Organic Fragrance-Free Sunscreen

“This is a good choice if you prefer a spray-on sunscreen,” says Dr. Chiu, who likes that it won’t dry out skin thanks to hydrating ingredients such as shea butter and glycerin. And, because there aren’t any artificial fragrances masking the titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, this pick has a definite sunscreen scent. Just make sure you don’t miss any spots (which is easy with a spray-on formula) and you keep from breathing it in while misting.

STYLECASTER | physical vs. chemical sunscreen

Courtesy of Kiehl’s.

Kiehl’s Super Fluid UV Defense SPF 50+

Dr. Chiu loves this waterproof, drip-off-your-face-if-you-don’t-tilt-your-chin-up-lightweight formula for everyday wear. It’s white but not chalky, smells like a pool but not unbearably so, and sinks into the skin seamlessly.

STYLECASTER | physical vs. chemical sunscreen

Courtesy of Revive.

Revive Soleil Superieur Broad Spectrum SPF 50

“If you want an antiaging cream that’s also a sunscreen, this product is [it],” says Dr. Chiu. “It’s ultra light and can be used under makeup for daily use.” A whipped souffle of a sunscreen, this pricey SPF 50 pick spreads on like caviar pate, dissolving into a transparent, glistening layer on the skin. Plus, the thing looks fine as hell standing on your vanity.

STYLECASTER | Ashley Benson Interview

share