Skin Care Blogs

Chemical vs. Physical Sunscreen: What’s the Difference?

This time of year, sun protection is top of mind. Whether you’re curious about the best sunscreens for everyday wear or the most common SPF myths, we’ve got you covered this summer with our guide to safe sun 101.

Sunscreen formulations have come a long way in recent years, but with so many options, finding your holy grail still takes trial and error. What works for one person may not work for everyone—and no one wants to use a sunscreen that makes them look like a not-so-distant relative of Beetlejuice.

But choosing a sunscreen doesn’t have to be scary, if you learn how to shop smarter—and that starts with knowing the difference between the two main types, chemical sunscreen and physical (or mineral) sunscreen.

We talked to the experts—Dr. Dendy Engelman, a board-certified dermatologist in New York and Dr. Erum Ilyas, a board-certified dermatologist in King of Prussia, Pa.—about what exactly chemical and physical sunscreens are, how they work and what each type does best, so you can learn which one works for you. After all, the best sunscreen is the one you’ll use every day.

How Does Physical Sunscreen Work?

“Physical sunscreen, also known as mineral sunscreen, acts as a shield by sitting on your skin’s surface and deflecting UV rays to prevent sunburn,” explains Dr. Engelman. Physical sunscreen is made with the mineral-based ingredients zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, which help to reflect and scatter harmful rays from the sun. If the only active ingredients listed on your sunscreen’s label are zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide, it’s a physical sunscreen.

The Pros: “Because physical sunscreen sits on top of the skin rather than being absorbed, it is considered ‘safer,’ especially for children and pregnant women, than chemical sunscreen,” explains Dr. Engelman. She also shares that it is an ideal option if you need to quickly apply some sun protection and go, as it starts working right away, as opposed to chemical sunscreen, which can take about half an hour for effective sun protection. Physical sunscreen may also be a better option for those with sensitive skin.

The Cons: Physical sunscreens do have one common complaint: Their ingredients often leave a white, ghost-like cast on the user. “The reality is that even though physical sunscreens are generally recognized as safe and effective and more reliable in their ability to block UV light, they are also thicker, more difficult to apply and can leave a white ghostly cast on the skin,” explains Dr. Ilyas. Fortunately, tinted formulas and new ingredient technologies are giving physical sunscreen wearers more and more options to avoid the Casper aesthetic (see a few of our favorites below).

How Does Chemical Sunscreen Work?

While physical sunscreens work like a reflective barrier on skin’s surface, chemical sunscreens partially absorb into skin and prevent UV damage through a chemical reaction. “Chemical sunscreen usually contains oxybenzone, dioxybenzone, avobenzone, octocrylene, homosalate, octinoxate and other chemicals, which absorb and release damaging UV rays,” shares Dr. Engelman. If the active ingredients listed on your sunscreen’s label contain anything other than zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, it’s a chemical sunscreen (though some hybrid formulas contain both chemical and physical ingredients).

The Pros: Chemical sunscreen can be easier to apply and does not leave behind the white residue that is often associated with physical sunscreens. Chemical formulations tend to be lighter and for that reason, are often preferred by oily skin types.

The Cons: Chemical sunscreens aren’t without their own controversies, though. While generally considered to be safe (and certainly better than going without SPF), chemical sunscreens are partially absorbed into the bloodstream and the potential side effects of this are still being studied. Reef-safety and absorption concerns have become been a part of the chemical sunscreen conversation, with brands like Supergoop! phasing out some of the more controversial chemical ingredients. Chemical sunscreens may also be more irritating to sensitive skin.

  1. Supergoop!® Mineral Sheerscreen SPF 30
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    Supergoop!® Mineral Sheerscreen SPF 30

    A Physical Formula That Goes on Clear

    What white cast? Where? You won’t have one with this mineral sunscreen—the term “mineral” can often scream “lead in an Edgar Allen Poe novel,” but not here. This sunscreen isn’t heavy, provides broad-spectrum SPF 30 and blue-light protection, and feels like a natural moisturizer, not an additional step.

     

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  2. Shiseido Ultimate Sun Protector Lotion SPF 50+ Sunscreen
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    Shiseido Ultimate Sun Protector Lotion SPF 50+ Sunscreen

    A Chemical SPF That Rubs in Easily

    For this sunscreen, Shiseido’s custom WetForce and HeatForce technologies combine to create SynchroShield, which helps your sun protection last through swimming, sweating and more.

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  3. Peter Thomas Roth Max Mineral Naked Broad Spectrum SPF 45
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    Peter Thomas Roth Max Mineral Naked Broad Spectrum SPF 45

    A Physical SPF With a Hint of Tint

    This actives-packed sunscreen will heal your skin while also protecting it—kind of like a superhero. It’s full of vitamins A and C to help boost the skin’s appearance, and silica to absorb excess oil. Diamond powder gives skin a stunning glow-from-within type of gleam.

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  4. EltaMD UV Clear Broad-Spectrum SPF 46
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    EltaMD UV Clear Broad-Spectrum SPF 46

    A Chemical-Physical Hybrid for the Best of Both Worlds

    Trust us: If you’re looking to get a little bit of chemistry in your physical sunscreen, this is the one you need to try immediately. Not only is it a beautifully applying sunscreen under makeup or alone, but it’s full of good-for-your-skin nourishing ingredients like sodium hyaluronate and niacinamide. There’s a reason this one is a bestseller time and time again.

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Amanda Mitchell

Amanda Mitchell is a writer and podcaster with bylines at Marie Claire, OprahMag, Allure, Byrdie, Stylecaster, Bon Appetit and more. Her work exists at the apex of beauty, pop culture and absurdity. A human Funfetti cake, she watches too much television, and her favorite season is awards season. You can read more of her work at amandaelizabethmitchell.com or follow her on Instagram and Twitter @lochnessmanda.