Difference Between Physical and Chemical Sunscreen

, Difference Between Physical and Chemical Sunscreen

FAQ: What is Physical Sunscreen? There are two basic types of sunscreens — chemical and physical. Each work differently to block the sun’s rays…

As consumers become more ecoconscious, we learn there are a lot of differences between types of sunscreen. One confusing distinction is between “physical” and “chemical” sunscreens. Sometimes you hear of “chemical-free sunscreens.” All sunscreens have chemicals. However, many chemicals are organic. No wonder it’s all confusing!

, Difference Between Physical and Chemical Sunscreen
, Difference Between Physical and Chemical Sunscreen

Chemical Sunscreens

The skin absorbs chemical sunscreen, then the skin absorbs UV rays. As a result, the skin converts the rays into heat, and the rays are released from the body as infrared rays. This changes the electromagnetic radiation effect according to dermatologist Saxon Smith in Chemical Versus Physical Sunscreen: What’s The Difference?

Chemical sunscreens, sometimes called “organic sunscreen,” contain carbon based compounds. Carbon is an organic element, but just like mercury; not necessarily good for us.

The active ingredients in chemical sunscreens are the ones you have heard are banned in Bonaiare, Palau, Hawaii, and Key West. They are oxybenzone, octinoxate, octisalate, and avobenzone.

, Difference Between Physical and Chemical Sunscreen

Physical Sunscreens

Physical sunscreens lie on top of the skin and deflect, reflect, and scatter the damaging rays of the sun away from the skin. Therefore, you might have heard them called “physical blockers” according to Lawrence Desjarlais, a cosmetic dermatologist, in Chemical Vs Physical (Mineral) Sunscreens: Pros and Cons.

Minerals like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are the active ingredients.

, Difference Between Physical and Chemical Sunscreen

Pros and Cons of Physical Sunscreens

Sensitive skin is less irritated, and physical sunscreens are more moisturizing according to David Harvey, M.D. who explains some differences in The difference between physical and chemical sunscreen . Tinted versions even out skin tone. They work immediately up application, last longer in direct UV light, and are less likely to sting.

Heat on the skin of people with rosacea exacerbates the redness. Roseacea sufferers will fare better with a physical sunscreen. This is due to its ability to reflect the sun’s heat and energy, according to Lela Lankerani, M.D, in Physical Sunscreen Vs. Chemical Sunscreen.

Physical sunscreens take a bit longer to blend, and they can feel heavier. Some have a white cast. Since it’s an actual barrier, any gaps in coverage allow UV light to reach the skin, so application must be consistent.

Physical sunscreens can seat, rinse, and rub off more easily, so frequent reapplication is suggested. Lankerani says in Physical Sunscreen Vs. Chemical Sunscreen that if the skin is wet or sweaty, it does not last as long and requires reapplication. This is a drawback, however, all sunscreens must be reapplied in about the same time-frame, so there’s no real difference here.

, Difference Between Physical and Chemical Sunscreen

Cosmetic and Fashion Applications of Physical Sunscreens

Non-tinted formulas of physical sunscreens do appear white-ish on medium to dark skin tones, but tinted versions are available. Formerly, physical sunscreens were not ideal for use under makeup.

Now, however, people use tinted sunscreens as foundation, not only on their faces, but also on arms and legs to minimize the appearance of age spots or veins.

Surfers and skiers have used physical sunscreens, such as zinc oxide, for such a long time that their use actually developed into a fashion statement in the surf/ski/lifeguard subculture of the 80’s.

The fashion industry caught on way back in 1986. Coats of Many Colors : Vibrant Zinc Oxide Is Turning Heads as the Winter’s Hottest–and Most Unlikely–Trend appeared in the Los Angeles Times, reporting on an “Elle” magazine cover with a bathing suit model sporting yellow zinc oxide on her nose and under her eyes.

You probably remember how “cool” the city lifeguards were with their status symbols of white noses and spinning whistles. How functional it actually was – and still is – for those “groms” to emulate their “ripper” surfing idols by conspicuous application of the white nose coat. When something that’s good for you also becomes fashionable; it’s a double win.

, Difference Between Physical and Chemical Sunscreen

Pros and Cons of Chemical Sunscreens

Although chemical sunscreens can be water resistant, which is good for people who are active and sweat a lot, they do require reapplication. They absorb quickly, and are easy to spread according to dermatologist Dr. Harvey in The Difference Between Physical and Chemical Sunscreen.

Since these work by changing UV rays into heat, then releasing them from the skin, they can possibly increase existing discoloration and brown spots, or even cause them, says dermatologist Desjarlais in Chemical Vs Physical (Mineral) Sunscreens: Pros and Cons.

Also, since the skin needs time to absorb the chemical, chemical sunscreens take longer to activate. These are more likely to irritate and sting the skin, especially dry skin. The higher the spf, the higher the possibility of skin irritation for people with sensitive skin. Lankerlani covers this in a section on drawbacks in Physical Sunscreen Vs. Chemical Sunscreen.

Reapplication must be frequent. These are more likely to clog pores says Lankerani.

Rosacea-prone skin suffers an increased chance of redness due to the absorption of UV rays that change into heat. Desjarlais says this can exacerbate flushing.

The main drawbacks of chemical sunscreens are that they are not “reef-safe” and can damage the oceanic ecosystem, induce coral bleaching, and kill coral larvae.

Those negatives outweigh any small benefit of chemical sunscreens. When you add on that they may cause adult onset of nervous system disease, and change gene functions… there’s no benefit that outweighs those cons.

, Difference Between Physical and Chemical Sunscreen

Choosing a Sunscreen

There are so many terms to learn to recognize.

Look for broad spectrum, which means it protects from UVA and UVB rays. UVA, UVB, and SPF explanations reiterate that higher spf’s aren’t necessarily better or even necessary.

Some people prefer fragrance-free, so be sure to consider that if it applies to you or your family.

Noncomedogenic versions are specially formulated to not cause blocked pores according to Harvey. These will be found in physical sunblocks.

Oil-free, and paraben-free are good choices.

Non-nano important. The term, “non-nano” means particles will not enter the blood stream; but nano will. Nano particles are dangerous for people and oceans. Read about that at Non-nano titanium tested safe for coral larvae.

Smith explains the whole nano/non-nano dilemma, “Due to their make up, zinc oxide and titanium oxide give off that ghosting effect that people don’t like about sunscreen. As a result, it becomes a barrier to using it. Nanotechnology is used to grind up these agents into smaller nanomolecules. This makes it more aesthetically pleasing to put on and it still gives us the protection that we want.”

, Difference Between Physical and Chemical Sunscreen

False Claims

On a recent trip to the Florida Keys, I looked at sunscreen displays in every dive shop and grocery we visited. The funniest display was the one with chemical sunscreens located next to the emergency defibrillator. How appropriate!

I found some really great-sounding terms on the fronts of sunscreen bottles. Apparently, there’s not much regulation on what companies can write on the front. Instead, it’s on the ingredients panel that they must declare the poisons within.

Reef safe can be just a claim, as is “natural,” “organic,” and all sunscreens need to be reapplied after 80 minutes, so higher spf’s don’t help – they only put more chemicals on and in your body.

, Difference Between Physical and Chemical Sunscreen

Additional Resources:

The difference between physical and chemical sunscreen
Chemical Vs Physical (Mineral) Sunscreens: Pros and Cons
Chemical Versus Physical Sunscreen: What’s The Difference?
Physical Sunscreen Vs. Chemical Sunscreen

You can see my Stream2Sea unboxing video here!

What to read next: How to Dispose of Toxic Sunscreen Banned in Several Vacation Destinations

Discount Code!

Stream2Sea generously gave me a discount code “DeepWH” for you to use at the checkout at checkout to save 10%. Using my link does not increase your price. You actually get a discount, and I receive a small portion of the sale. This allows me to buy more sunscreen for myself and my sailing crew.

, Difference Between Physical and Chemical Sunscreen

Thanks for reading, and if you have any questions or suggestions, leave your comments below. I’d love to hear from you!

Updated June 20, 2019

Updated April 14, 2020


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