By now, everyone from dermatologists to skincare beginners can agree sunscreen is one of the most crucial products one can have in their routine. Sun damage has been proven responsible for a large majority of the physical signs of aging and skin damage in general. This might make us want to avoid the sun completely, but we can’t do that. We need the sun. We need to be outside in the fresh air and feel the warmth of the sun on our skin to improve and maintain physical and mental health. It’s not always possible to wear big hats or walk around with an umbrella, so we wear sunscreen. When you start looking into the different kinds of sunscreen available today, you’re bound to hear about the chemical versus physical sunscreen debate. We’re here to breakdown the real difference between these two variants so you can decide which is best for your lifestyle and needs.
Dermatologists generally explain the difference as “absorbent vs reflector.” Chemical sunscreens are considered absorbers: they absorb UV rays as they enter the skin and release them as infrared rays, protecting your skin from the damaging UV. Chemical sunscreens get their name because they contain chemicals. If you read the ingredient label of a sunscreen and see anything Octylcrylen, Avobenzone, or Octinoxate, you’ve probably picked out a chemical sunscreen. Physical sunscreens, instead, have more natural inclusions such as zinc and titanium oxide. Physical sunscreens are called reflectors: they build a protective layer over the skin to reflect UV rays. It’s also possible to find sunscreens that may combine ingredients to create a chemical/mechanical mix.
Which kind of sunscreen is better? The answer to this varies, individual to individual, depending on what you’re looking for in a sunscreen and how your skin reacts to different ingredients. Chemical sunscreens are much easier to get ahold of and far more popular on drugstore shelves and stores. These are generally more protective against UVA and UVB rays, but when used properly (reapply regularly, not washing it off, etc) neither kind of sunscreen is drastically more protective than the other. Chemical sunscreens also have a tendency to be more irritating. Physical sunscreens, on the other hand, are known for leaving the greyish white residue on the skin that people tend to associate with sunscreen. Zinc and titanium oxide are the reason for that white cast and nanotechnology is attempting to grind up these ingredients into smaller particles to reduce that very problem (although they can’t be ground too small or they will absorb into the skin too much and may cause adverse effects).
Whether you prefer the all natural route with physical sunscreens and don’t mind the white cast, or opt for the convenience and aesthetics of chemical sunscreens, both achieve the same thing. As long as you’re protecting your skin from the sun, what kind of sunscreen you choose all depends on how sensitive your skin is to certain ingredients and what kind of lifestyle you lead.