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Physical vs Chemical sunscreen- Which one is right for you?

Melasma, hyperpigmentation, dark patches, DNA damage, premature aging, skin burns & worst of all, melanoma- the deadliest skin cancer! Too much exposure to ultraviolet radiation from the sun is one of the biggest triggers of all these problems. To combat all skin-related issues, you must incorporate & use sunscreen in your everyday routine regularly. Forget all your other skincare products for once but never step outside without sunscreen.

A woman applying sunscreen

About Sunscreen

Apart from saving your skin from harmful UV radiation & its potential risks, Sunscreen also slows down your premature aging signs like wrinkles, and fine lines & protects the collagen. But when choosing a sunscreen, you have two choices, Physical & chemical sunscreens. They work differently so it matters to choose the right one according to your skin type & preference.

Physical Sunscreen

Physical sunscreen

Physical Sunscreen

Physical sunscreen

Physical Sunscreens are also known as mineral sunscreens

  1. The major difference between Chemical and mineral sunscreen is how they block rays.
  2. Mineral sunscreens don’t allow UV rays to enter the skin. They act as a shield on the outer layer of skin which is the epidermis & deflects the rays.
  3. Another important difference is that mineral sunscreens offer immediate protection as soon as you apply them, unlike chemical sunscreens which easily take around 15 minutes to start working.
  4. The third difference is Mineral sunscreens are even good for sensitive skin type, pregnant women & kids as it guards the skin from just outside & hence have very low chances of any irritation.
  5. The fourth difference is mineral sunscreens don’t rely on chemicals to work and hence need to be applied less often compared to chemical ones which break down over time & lose the ability to protect the skin. So, if you’re looking for all-day protection, go for Mineral sunscreens because they will last longer.
  6. The next difference between physical and chemical sunscreen is Mineral sunscreen is less likely to sting if it comes in contact with your eyes because it is gentler compared to the chemical one.
  7. Lastly, physical sunscreens contain titanium dioxide & zinc oxide which are white in color & work by sitting on the skin’s surface & deflecting rays but that’s why applying physical sunscreens can be a tad bit annoying as it leaves the greasy white cast on the skin because of the presence of zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. The white cast fades away in less than 15 mins if you have nicely massaged and rubbed it in properly.
  8. Can white cast be avoided? When you want to stick to physical sunscreen & want to manage the white cast issue – Choose tinted physical sunscreens: Tinted physical sunscreens not only protect you from sun damage but also act like a bb cream or a light natural concealer for any pigmentation or patches. You can choose the color according to your skin tone & voila you get to use a physical sunscreen your way.

Chemical Sunscreen

Chemical sunscreen

Chemical sunscreen

Chemical sunscreen

Chemical sunscreen

  1. Chemical sunscreens contain chemical UV filters like oxybenzone, avobenzone, octinoxate, homosalate, octocrylene & octisalate.
  2. Chemical sunscreens first absorb into the skin then it absorbs all the UV rays inside & converts these rays into heat & release them from your body.
  3. Chemical sunscreens are very smooth & easy to apply. It leaves no white cast or color. It glides on your skin nicely.
  4. Chemical sunscreens are not unsafe but, in my opinion, if you are pregnant always choose a gentler option if you can, hence choose physical sunscreen in the pregnancy period.
  5. Chemical sunscreens take around 15 mins to absorb properly in your skin & start working so, apply sunscreen 15 min prior before stepping outside.
  6. You need to reapply it every 2 hours
  7. People with sensitive skin or skin conditions like rosacea or melasma may get irritation or unwanted inflammation from chemical sunscreens.
  8. When it comes to kids, older kids are better at using chemical sunscreens than little ones.

Let’s do an easy clear comparison chart of physical and chemical sunscreen

Physical sunscreen Chemical sunscreen
Doesn’t get absorbed into the skin & protects the skin by shielding it from the outside & deflecting the rays Gets absorbed in the skin, traps the UV rays & converts them into heat & releases them from the body
Good for sensitive skin types  Might irritate sensitive skin types
Contains- Titanium dioxide & zinc oxide Contains- Oxybenzone, Avobenzone, Octinoxate, Homosalate, Octocrylene, Octisalate  
Greasy texture to apply & leaves a clownish white cast Very smooth in application, and doesn’t leave any white cast
Nothing gets absorbed in the bloodstream & or harms the environment The chemical filters in it have been found to be absorbed in the bloodstream but within the FDA-guided safety limit. Octinoxate & oxybenzone harms the coral reef.
Lasts longer Needs to reapply more in comparison to physical sunscreens
Immediate effect Takes 15 mins to absorb in & starts effecting
Physical vs Chemical Sunscreen

Chemical vs Physical sunscreen- The more powerful sunscreen?

Formulating a perfect sunscreen with a smooth texture, no white cast, and lightweight & non-greasy all in one is a real pain in the ass, told by many chemists. Applying sunscreen religiously every day is not easy for a lot of people. The only thing which drives them to use sunscreen in their routine is texture, in my opinion. So, the more powerful sunscreen is, the one you are willing to use every day & are ready to reapply every 2 hours. Hence, just choose a sunscreen you find easy & would apply every damn day. Any sunscreen is much better than no sunscreen.

Is chemical sunscreen safe? A few controversies!

  • There have been recent findings regarding chemical sunscreen absorption in the blood. The FDA tested seven chemical sunscreen filters & found all of them were absorbed into the bloodstream but over the safety limit of 0.5ng/ml. This may sound a tad bit concerning but there’s still no straight answer here about it causing any skin cancer. The FDA is investigating the safety of chemical sunscreen filters & we are waiting for more updates. Also, they are not at all saying to abandon the chemical sunscreens since there’s no real conclusion. But there is enough proof & reports of UV rays causing skin cancer.

  • Chemical sunscreen filters, Oxybenzone & octinoxate are banned in Hawaii due to their impact on coral reefs. Studies have shown that these two filters cause coral bleaching, impact their reproduction & also cause deformation in young coral. So, if you plan to do some coral reef snorkeling anytime in the future, just reach out for water-resistant physical sunscreens.

What to look for when choosing sunscreen?

  • Choose between 30-50 SPF range
  • Make sure you’re getting both UVA & UVB protection, hence look for the term “broad spectrum”
  • Reapply every 2 hours
  • If you’re spending a lot of time in the water, choose a sunscreen based on a water-resistance limit
  • Always opt for a brand that makes non-comedogenic sunscreens
  • PABA free
  • Fragrance-free & oil-free
  • Paraben free
  • Expiration date

What is UVA, UVB, UVC?

UVA- UVA makes up to 95% of the ultraviolet rays that reach our skin. It is the longest of the 3 wavelengths. UVA rays go deep in the dermis of the skin & are the main culprits behind photoaging. That’s why look for the term “broad spectrum” on your sunscreen to make sure it covers both UVA+UVB protection.

UVB- UVB makes up the remaining 5% of the ultraviolet rays that reach our skin. Because of a shorter wavelength compared to UVB, it only reaches the epidermis which is the outer layer of skin. UVB is solely responsible for sunburn & skin cancer.

UVC- Shortest of the 3 wavelengths. It gets absorbed by the stratosphere & ozone thus, we can easily ignore it without worrying.

What is the meaning of SPF 15,30? (Don’t skip this!)

You might think SPF 30 must offer twice the protection of an SPF 15 but no that’s not how SPF value works. SPF 15 means it can block around 1/15th of the UVB or roughly 93% of UVB, while SPF 30 sunscreen blocks about 97% of UVB but both need to be reapplied every 2 hours.


1. Can sunscreen be the cause of my breakouts?

Choose better textures -the European & Asian formulas are lighter. Also, chemical sunscreens have lighter textures & are more friendly to oily-acne-prone skin types. Tinted Mineral sunscreen is also a good option for you.

2. How should I layer my sunscreen?

As the last step of your routine. Applying anything over it runs the risk of interfering with & diminishing sun protection.

3. Can I use expired sunscreen?

Don’t do it, honey! No, Sunscreen formulation is finicky enough to formulate already. When it’s time to go, let it go.

4. Can I use SPF 100?

SPF 50 blocks 97% of the UV rays. Anything above that will come in a super greasy, heavy texture that’ll leave a white cast. So, SPF 50 should be perfect for you.

5. How do I get vitamin D with sunscreen on?

Modern problems come with modern solutions,

  • Increase your foods that are high in vitamin D like eggs, milk, and fish.
  • Start a vitamin D tablet, 1000 mg every day
  • If you persist in taking vitamin D from the sun only, then sunbathe in the morning before 10 AM or in the evening after 5 PM for 10-15 mins every day & that’s sufficient. Afternoon sun rays are really damaging!

Conclusion- Physical or chemical sunscreen?

Sunscreen & Glow

Mineral and Chemical sunscreens- Which one is right for you?

  • Oily skin /in water- Chemical sunscreens tend to have thinner and smoother textures. Choose a fragrance-free one.
  • Dry skin- Go for thicker texture fragrance- & alcohol-free chemical sunscreens
  • Sensitive skin / Little kids/Rosacea/ Melasma skin conditions- Go for fragrance-free SPF 30 mineral sunscreen
  • Acne-prone skin types Tinted mineral sunscreen/chemical sunscreen

I hope I have cleared up some of your doubts & lastly, choose any sunscreen you like or that suits your skin between 30-50 SPF especially people with Ivory skin are at the most risk of getting severe burns and cancer unfortunately. Do apply it every single day. Trust me, it will save you from loads of unnecessary skin problems.

Love~ Beauty Stroll


By Aayushi S
By Aayushi S
Aayushi is a New York based freelance writer and a content strategist. She is a computer science graduate, a health and skincare fanatic and is also the founder of “Beauty Stroll “. She aims to make science-backed skincare easy to understand for her readers.

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