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

What’s the Difference Between Physical and Chemical Sunscreens, Anyway?
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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. Let us break it down for you. This’ll be fun-ish, I promise.

There are two main categories: physical and chemical. Physical 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, and Gwyneth thinks they cause cancer.

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.”

Ahead, our favorite picks for each category.

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Physical Sunscreens

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.

Drunk Elephant Umbra Sheer Physical Defense SPF 30, $38; at Sephora

Physical Sunscreens

“This is a great choice for those with dry skin since it’s loaded with shea butter and other plant oils," says Dr. Chiu, who recommends this fragrance-free formula for sensitive skin. Plus, the wide nozzle means you'll cover a lot of ground quickly.

Alba Botanica Very Emollient Mineral Sunscreen SPF 35, $9.95; at Walmart

Physical Sunscreens

“This tinted sunscreen is a good one because it can safely be used around your eyes for an all-over, even complexion,” says Dr. Chiu. The actives are split between zinc and titanium oxides, offering broad-spectrum protection and a light-yet-lasting tint. It comes in two far-reaching shades, and maybe I just got lucky, but Light-Medium feels like it was created just for my own personal face alone. If you want a formula that feels like a breakthrough that won't break you out, try this one this summer.

Dr. Dennis Gross Instant Radiance Sun Defense Sunscreen SPF 40, $42; at Dr. Dennis Gross

Physical Sunscreens

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

La Roche-Posay Anthelios 50 Mineral Extra Light Sunscreen Fluid, $33.50; at La Roche-Posay


Chemical Sunscreens

This lightweight face sunscreen doesn’t just offer broad-spectrum protection: Red and brown algae also help fade hyperpigmentation over time. It sinks right into skin quickly sans oily residue, too, so reapplying won’t make you a greasy mess.

Dermalogica Pure Light SPF 50, $64; at Dermalogica

Chemical Sunscreens

“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.

Coola Unscented Sunscreen Spray SPF 50, $36; at Ulta

Chemical Sunscreens

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 skin seamlessly.

Kiehl’s Super Fluid UV Defense SPF 50+, $34.20; at Nordstrom

Chemical Sunscreens

“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.

Revive Soleil Superieur Broad Spectrum SPF 50, $115; at Blue Mercury

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