The Difference Between Physical and Chemical Sunscreens | Pros & Cons!

So for today’s post, I’m going to be covering some of the information that I discussed in my recent Skincare Short. I wanted to talk about the difference between Physical and Chemical sunscreens because even I was a bit confused before doing the research for this video! I feel like these terms get bounced around a lot, but what do they actually mean?

Let’s get to the breakdown…

First let’s talk physical (or mineral) sunscreens because this is probably the traditional form of protection (think the white streak most surfers or lifeguards rocked back in the day). They work by sitting on the surface of the skin and reflect the sun’s rays. They are a literal physical barrier between you and the sun, hence the name! They are also great for immediate protection since that physical protection is effective right after application. They’re good for sensitive skin types since your skin doesn’t actually absorb it but this is also where that dreaded “white cast” comes from. However, companies have been coming out with technology to improve the user experience… this comes in the form of micronized formulations. These sunscreens have smaller particles, so they blend more beautifully onto the skin. So how do you know if you’re using a physical sunscreen? Look for the ingredients zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. These are also considered to be safer and have been vetted as less irritating. As a side note, these are also generally thought to be safer for the environment and marine life too. Some of the downfalls of a physical sunscreen include its lasting ability. This type of protection tends to rub or sweat off and needs to be generously applied to be effective.

Chemical sunscreens work by actually absorbing the ultraviolet rays from the sun and then converting them to heat, which your body the expels. Chemical sunscreens tend to be formulated with organic carbon-based compounds such as oxybenzone*, octinoxate, octisalate and avobenzone. Chemical sunscreens are easier to formulate with other ingredients, so that’s why you might see them combined with other beneficial ingredients like peptides, antioxidants, or enzymes. Their chemical (or organic) component is also what causes them to be a lighter and smoother. This makes them easier to wear under makeup and you don’t have to worry about the “white cast”. These types of sunscreens are also less dependent on how much you need… basically there’s a lower risk with missing a spot. However, despite the lightweight and beautiful finish of chemical sunscreens, they are more likely to irritate sensitive skin types. They also take longer after application to work because they need time to absorb and penetrate into you skin’s layers.

*Oxybenzone has been linked to coral reef damage (its been shown to damage the DNA of coral reefs and cause coral bleaching) and initiates endocrine disruption. I won’t get into this whole topic too much because I want to keep this post brief and concise. However, I would definitely recommend checking out some studies as they are very insightful to the effects of Oxybenzone.

Main takeaway: As long as you are protecting your skin, the main thing to worry about is finding what works best for your skin and lifestyle. (Of course, I also recommend trying to choose skincare, in general, that is safe for yourself and the environment and ethically sound.) For me personally, I have dry, sensitive skin so when I can, I’ll opt for a physical sunscreen. The “oiliest” or “heaviness” actually works well for my dry skin because it almost acts as a moisturizer and the ingredients don’t irritate my sensitive skin.

Now what you’ve all been waiting for… the recommendations! Like I said, I have the most experience with physical sunscreens because that’s what my skin likes, but I did include a couple chemical ones just in case!

Physical Sunscreens:
Innisfree Intensive Triple Care Sunscreen
There’s a reason why this sunscreen is so popular among K-Beauty lovers! It’s a great physical sunscreen that works amazingly on dry skin people. For me, I really like that this sunscreen almost acts as a moisturizer for me. When I apply it under my makeup, I even find that it acts as a good, smooth base! I will say, if you have darker skin, you will have to be very diligent when applying (the white cast will also fade after a couple minutes)! Because of the white cast, I would absolutely recommend this for those who plan on wearing makeup over top of it anyways.
La Roche-Posay Anthelios Ultra Light Sunscreen Fluid
You guys, I’m sorry… this one is pricy but it’s been something I’ve used for the longest time (I actually was first introduced to La Roche-Posay when I studied abroad in Paris!). This has to be one of the most light-weight physical sunscreens I’ve used. It’s smooth and silky and find that it’s a great introduction into physical sunscreens (if you’ve been standoffish from them because of the thickness/white cast).

Chemical Sunscreens:
Neogen Dermalogy Day-Light Protection Sun Screen
This sunscreen has been a long-standing favorite of mine for years. It has the most beautiful finish and doesn’t feel heavy whatsoever. It’s great for those who’s main concern is the white cast or heaviness.
Cosrx Aloe Soothing Sun Cream
Ok, admittedly I’m kind of cheating here but I really like this sunscreen so I wanted to include it! If you look at the ingredients list, this product actually has both chemical and physical blockers in it. The reason I like this is because it’s super light-weight and is an easy to use sunscreen. Not only does this practically glide onto the skin, but I love that it doesn’t irritate my skin!

Well I hope that was helpful for those of you guys who were curious about the main differences. I definitely learned a lot through the process of researching for this video. Another note I want to add is I noticed that there’s a lot of new information out there about sunscreen safety! I’m definitely going to be doing more research about this and will hopefully be able to update you guys soon <3