Medically reviewed by Minimalist Health Specialist -  Written by Sritama Dutta (Medical Science) on 03rd Feb 2021

Confused About Physical Sunscreen vs. Chemical Sunscreens? Here’s What You Should Know!

About Physical Sunscreen vs. Chemical Sunscreens

Exposure to sun rays for long durations can be very harmful to the skin. It can cause premature aging, develops sunspots, and can even result in skin cancer. Thus, sunscreen is a necessary measure that you cannot afford to skip. A good quality broad-spectrum sunscreen would help prevent the harmful effects of the UV rays on the skin.

But sunscreens can be of different types. They have different ingredients and thus have different modes of action, and it is easy to get confused between them. In this article, we would discuss the two broad categories of sunscreens and try to get a better idea about them.  

What is Sunscreen?

Sunscreen is a skincare product that prevents harmful ultraviolet radiation from affecting your skin. Sunscreens are often labeled as “Broad-spectrum.” This means they are effective against both types of UV rays: the UV-A and UV-B rays.

Sunscreens are also available in different forms. You can choose among cream-based, gel-based, or water-based sunscreens, depending on your skin type and your skin’s needs. Sunscreens are classified into two different categories depending upon their ingredients and how they work on your skin. Let’s see what they are.  

What Are The Different Types of Sunscreen?

Sunscreens are classified into two types: Physical Sunscreens and Chemical Sunscreens. The physical sunscreens are the ones which act superficially on the skin, while the chemicals sunscreens are the ones that act more invasively as it gets absorbed in the skin. Though they are different in their structure and function, each of these sunscreen types has its pros and cons. Keep reading/scrolling to find out more about the two types of sunscreen.  

Physical Sunscreen vs. Chemical Sunscreen: 

1. Physical Sunscreens:

What Should You Know About Them?

Physical sunscreens are mineral-based sunscreens that work only at the superficial layer of the skin. They are also known as sunblocks. When applied, these sunscreens build a protective film over the skin and blocks the harmful sun radiations from reaching your skin. The sunscreen deflects away from the UV rays from the surface of your skin and thus, greatly reduces the risk of premature aging and even decreases the chance of skin cancer.

The main ingredients used in making physical sunscreens are zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. These ingredients are labeled as “GRASE” or Generally Recognized as Safe and Effective. These sunscreens can be of broad-spectrum, which can offer you protection against both UV-A and UV-B rays.  

2. Chemical Sunscreens:

Chemical sunscreens are also known as organic sunscreens and are composed of multiple organic chemical compounds. They are oxybenzone, avobenzone, octinoxate, and octisalate. Such sunscreens get absorbed in the skin and activate after about 20-30 minutes. They absorb the sun rays, convert the radiation into heat and release them from the body.

These chemical sunscreens are available as broad-spectrum that is effective against both UV-A and UV-B rays. However, organic sunscreens can penetrate the skin and enter your blood circulation, and some of their ingredients can have harmful effects on the skin.  

  • For instance, avobenzone can induce free radicals in the skin and increase the risk of skin cancer. 
  • Homosalate can also get accumulated in the skin and cause hormone disruption.  
  • Octinoxate can also cause endocrine disruption.   

When Should You Use Physical Sunscreen? 

  • The ingredients in chemical sunscreen can penetrate your skin and get into your blood circulation. You can prefer a physical sunscreen if you do not want any chemicals to enter your bloodstream.
  • Physical sunscreens are also a preferable option if you suffer from eczema, rosacea, or have sensitive skin.
  • You can use physical sunscreen if you want it to act immediately.

When Should You Use Chemical Sunscreen? 

  • You can use chemical sunscreen if you find the heavier physical sunscreens uncomfortable to wear.
  • Physical sunscreens tend to wash off in the water. So, if you are going for a swim or thinking that it might rain today, chemical sunscreens are a better choice.  
  • Physical sunscreens often cast a whitish film over the superficial layer of the skin. If you do not like that to happen, choosing a chemical sunscreen is a better option.  

Frequently Asked Questions: 

1. Is Chemical sunscreen better than Physical Sunscreen? 

Both physical and chemical sunscreens have their own set of merits and demerits. Physical sunscreens are heavier in consistency and cast a whitish film over the skin. It might not be an ideal option for individuals with oily skin. But chemical sunscreens might contain harmful chemical compounds that can penetrate the skin and enter the bloodstream. This can aggravate breakouts, thus it’s not a suitable choice for acne-prone or sensitive skin.
Physical sunscreen can act instantly as soon as applied on the skin, while chemical sunscreen can take up to 30 minutes to show its action.   

2. Is Chemical sunscreen bad for acne? 

Chemical sunscreens penetrate the epidermis and can reach the subcutaneous dermal layers. Such sunscreens contain ingredients such as avobenzone, benzophenone, oxybenzone, methoxycinnamate, and para-aminobenzoic acid. These ingredients can get absorbed in the skin and sensitize the skin and induce breakouts.

However, a chemical sunscreen with a mattifying effect can absorb sweat, sebum, and oil and protect the skin without worsening the acne. If you have sensitive, acne-prone skin, a physical sunscreen is a better option for you.  

3. Does sunscreen whiten the skin? 

No, sunscreen has no ingredients that can reduce melanin (the skin pigment) synthesis. Thus, it does not affect the skin complexion. But, the physical sunscreen can cast a white film over the superficial surface of the skin. This film blocks the sun rays from reaching the skin and deflects the UV radiations using UV filter ingredients. It has no skin whitening action, which is a chemical reaction.  

4. Can I skip moisturizer and use sunscreen instead? 

No, skipping moisturizer and using sunscreen instead is not a good idea. The two products have entirely different functions. While the sunscreen saves/protects your skin from the harmful sun rays, the moisturizer helps hydrate the skin and makes the skin firmer and more resilient.

However, some sunscreens available in the market contain certain humectants and emollients as ingredients that hydrate the skin. But that does not suffice the skin’s needs. Thus, we recommend using both sunscreen and moisturizer daily.  

5. Is SPF 50 better than SPF 30?  

According to dermatologists, sunscreen with SPF above 30 effectively protects our skin from harmful sun rays. Studies have shown that SPF 30 can protect your skin from 97% of UV rays. Whereas SPF 50 can prevent 98% of the UV rays. The 1% difference might seem unimportant but using sunscreen with higher SPF saves you from 50% of harmful UV rays.

SPF 50 sunscreen also allows you to stay out under the sun for a longer duration than SPF 30. It can give you up to 3 extra hours of outdoor activity without having to reapply sunscreen.  

6. Is chemical sunscreen safe to use during pregnancy? 

Some studies suggest that chemical sunscreens can cause congenital disabilities in newborn babies. Compounds like oxybenzone, found in chemical sunscreens, have been tested to cause a congenital disability known as Hirschsprung’s disease.

Though this disease is rare and affects only one among 5000 children, Hirschsprung disease affects the infant’s large intestine. Thus, it is advised to refrain from using chemical sunscreen during pregnancy and nursing and rather use a lesser invasive physical sunscreen.  

7. Does sunscreen have any Potential Side Effects? 

Though wearing sunscreen is mostly beneficial for your skin, some cases have been reported to face certain side effects of using sunscreen.

1. Chemical sunscreens can clog the skin pores. If you have sensitive, acne-prone skin, congestion of the pores can aggravate acne formation.

2. Though rare, sunscreen can also cause allergic reactions. People may experience symptoms such as:   

  • Redness and swelling 
  • Acne 
  • Rashes and hives,  
  • Itching, stinging 
  • Clogged hair follicles.  

3. Wearing sunscreen can interfere with Vitamin D synthesis in our body, resulting in severe deficiency. However, this theory has not yet been supported by sufficient valid scientific data. 

The Bottom Line:  

Sunscreens are of two types. The ones made from organic ingredients are termed Organic or Chemical Sunscreens. At the same time, the ones made from inorganic components are termed Mineral or Physical sunscreen. Both these types can have their pros and cons, which makes choosing among them a difficult task.

This article has tried to compare the advantages and disadvantages of physical sunscreen vs. chemical sunscreen. We hope this has made it more convenient for you to decide to choose the one ideal for your skin.