How do you know if your sunscreen is chemical or physical? And which one is better to use?
Just like brushing your teeth, applying SPF in the morning should be a part of your daily routine. Why? Because it's the best thing you can do to protect against skin cancer and prevent premature aging. Some sunscreens can even reverse signs of aging by smoothing texture and boosting skin brightness.
But how can you tell the difference between all the sunscreens out there? And what kind of sunscreen should you use? Shopping online for sunscreens can seem daunting, especially with buzzwords like "physical" and "chemical" plastered on labels. Here's how to parse those terms apart and choose the SPF product that's best for you.
What are the different types of sunscreen?
There are two main types of sunscreen — physical and chemical. Physical sunscreens contain active mineral ingredients, such as titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, which sit on top of the skin and block rays at the surface. Chemical sunscreens, on the other hand, are absorbed into the skin and act as a sponge to absorb harmful rays. They contain organic compounds, such as oxybenzone, octinoxate, octisalate, and avobenzone, which create a chemical reaction and work by changing UV rays into heat, then releasing that heat from the skin.
Because physical sunscreens act as physical barriers between UVA/UVB rays and the skin, they tend to feel heavy and/or leave a film on the skin. They also rub off and sweat off easily. Chemical sunscreens tend to have a thinner consistency, meaning they spread more easily on the skin.
Are chemical sunscreens safe?
The FDA announced in 2019 that it wants to see more data to support that chemical sunscreens meet specific safety criteria. One point that they made is that current research shows that oxybenzone, in particular, is absorbed through the skin to a higher degree than previously thought. Research has found that it is present in breast milk, urine, blood plasma, and amniotic fluid. But, just because oxybenzone is present in the bloodstream doesn't make it dangerous. These chemicals have been around a long time and show no toxicity even with detectable levels.
The American Academy of Dermatology also recommends that consumers use sunscreen, including those that are chemical-based, because the benefits far outweigh the risks, such as skin cancer. If you want to avoid oxybenzone as an ingredient, there are plenty of chemical sunscreens available that are oxybenzone-free.
Is mineral sunscreen the same as physical sunscreen?
Yes, mineral and physical sunscreens are interchangeable. Titanium dioxide and zinc oxide are both minerals that are the main active ingredients in physical sunscreens. While mineral-based sunscreens are more natural, even their cleaner ingredients go through a chemical process during formulation. A lot of mineral-based sunscreens also have chemical blockers in them. No matter what, all sunscreens have chemicals in them, whether they're considered natural or not.
Looking for a broad-spectrum sunscreen that's made with physical blockers? Then look no further — LA Beauty's BFF SPF 50+ is formulated with both zinc oxide and titanium dioxide for both UVA and UVB protection while hydrating and evening out the skin.
So, which sunscreen should you use?
This is a trick question. Many dermatologists actually recommend that you use both physical and chemical sunscreens simultaneously when you can as long as your skin is compatible with the formulas. Why? Because you'll get both inside and outer protection. Some sunscreens even use both physical and chemical blockers. Ultimately, however, the best sunscreen is one you enjoy wearing a generous coat of and is compatible with your skin type.
- "Natural isn't Always Better: What You Don't Know About Sunscreen," Byrdie, December 16, 2019.
- "Should You Wear Physical or Chemical Sunscreen? A Dermatologist Explains the Difference," Prevention, April 30, 2020.