From potential health risks to environmental concerns, there’s a lot of worrying and conflicting information out in the world when it comes to sunscreens. Find out what’s what as we take a look at the differences between mineral and chemical sunscreens.
According to the World Health Organisation, one in every three cancers diagnosed is a skin cancer, 90% of which are caused by UV radiation. While risk factors differ based on individual disposition and geography, as ozone levels deplete and more UV radiation reaches the surface of the earth, the WHO expects the global incidence of skin cancer to continue to rise in the foreseeable future.
According to the American Skin Cancer Foundation, just getting sunburnt 5 or more times in your life can actually double your risk for melanoma! That’s why sun protection is serious business and sunscreens play an essential role in our skincare routines not only for its cosmetic effects but also for long term health and well being.
But when it comes to sunscreens, it can get confusing with the number of options on the market and one of the more common questions I often hear is “What’s the difference between chemical and physical sunscreens?” Well, we take an in-depth look at the differences between the two here. Read on!
Key Difference Between Chemical and Physical Sunscreens
Chemical sunscreens, sometimes referred to as “non-physical” or “non-mineral” sunscreens typically contain one or more of these ingredients: Octocrylene, Oxybenzone, Avobenzone, Octisalate, Homosalate or Octinoxate. These ingredients absorb UV light and convert it into heat, neutralising its damaging effects in the process.
Physical sunscreens, as the name might suggest, creates more of a barrier that reflects and scatters UV light that reaches your skin. Physical sunscreens typically use ingredients such as Zinc Oxide and Titanium Dioxide which is why they are sometimes referred to as “mineral” sunscreens.
What Are The Pros and Cons of Each?
If there exists two types of sunscreen then it can be deduced that Chemical and Physical sunscreens each have certain traits that make them suitable or preferred by some but disliked or avoided by others. I’ve broken it down to a few critical factors here to help you understand.
Comfort is probably the most important factor as it often determines how regularly you apply your sunscreen and in this respect, chemical sunscreens have a distinct advantage over physical sunscreens. Chemical sunscreens tend to be lighter and more sheer making them generally favoured by most consumers. This is especially true in humid conditions or if you have a tendency to perspire.
While modern formulations of physical sunscreens have improved dramatically in recent years, they still tend to be thick and pasty and can leave behind an oily residue that might feel unpleasant (for some) on the skin. Physical sunscreens can also leave a white cast or ghosting effect especially on darker skin tones, and can turn chalky when mixed with perspiration.
That thicker, pasty feeling of physical sunscreens is what gives it better endurance over chemical sunscreens as they tend not to get rubbed off as easily as chemical sunscreens. With chemical sunscreens, you also need to allow the UV filters 15-30 minutes to absorb before sun exposure whereas, you can slap on a physical sunscreen and be pretty much good to go!
For this reason, it is recommended to use physical sunscreens when reapplying sunscreen while participating in outdoor activities like cycling, golf or just spending the day at the beach. Reapplication of physical sunscreens provides immediate protection whereas chemical sunscreens require additional time to absorb and become effective.
Sensitivity and Safety
While most consumers prefer chemical sunscreens for its superior comfort, some of the active ingredients in chemical sunscreens can be fairly irritating. If you have sensitive or acne-prone skin and your skin is reacting to the sunscreen that you are using, then you might want to consider switching over to a physical sunscreen instead.
As physical sunscreens do not get absorbed by the skin, there are also fewer safety concerns related to them. While some recent research has suggested potential concerns with certain ingredients in chemical sunscreens, many of the active ingredients used in chemical sunscreens have been used for decades and has not been conclusively linked to any adverse effects.
Are Physical Sunscreens Safer Than Chemical Sunscreens?
Much of the recent concerns with chemical sunscreens have come from some recent FDA studies done in 2019 and 2020 that have observed certain ingredients like oxybenzone and octocrylene getting absorbed by the body. It’s noteworthy however, that the study’s authors have not found any evidence that chemical sunscreens actually cause any harm.
The label “Chemical Sunscreen" gets a bad rap and often brings to mind images of test tubes and acids eating through tables. But it's worth noting that oxides of minerals found in physical sunscreens are technically chemicals as well. Physical sunscreens are also often erroneously assumed to be more “natural” which isn’t often true as many physical sunscreens include chemicals in them as well.
While there are always risks associated with using sunscreen and pretty much any other skincare product, these risks are miniscule in comparison to the risks associated with contracting skin cancer. And while you should be aware of these risks you should definitely not be avoiding sun protection altogether.
So What Type of Sunscreen Is Better?
If you can avoid the sun altogether then that’s probably the best if a little impractical. But the best sunscreen I would say, is the one you actually use. Too often we hoard up on products after seeing a social media post or reading a headline only to leave the product sitting on our vanity. So ,other than making sure it's broad-spectrum and at least SPF 30, pick a sunscreen you’re most comfortable with and most likely to use regularly.
If you often wear makeup and prefer a sheer and lightweight sunscreen that you can layer on with your foundation and other makeup then a chemical sunscreen might work better for you. Or, if you live in a humid climate, prize comfort or tend to perspire, then a chemical sunscreen might also be a better choice.
Choose a physical sunscreen if you’re looking for a more resistant sunscreen for outdoor activities or have sensitive and acne prone skin. If you are pregnant (or not) and have concerns over the miniscule risk of absorption of the chemical actives in chemical sunscreens, then pick a physical sunscreen. Having a peace of mind is important to being able to stick to your sun care routine.
You should also note that there are also hybrid sunscreens that use both chemical and physical sun protection actives blending the best (and the worst) of both worlds. Whatever you do end up choosing, make sure it is something that you like, feel comfortable with and actually use on a regular basis.
Best Super Sheer and Lightweight Sunscreen
Sunscreens don’t get much lighter than this! Using next generation chemical sun protection actives, the Cellus Sun Gel Plus SPF 50+ PA++++, $36 (US$ 26), is super lightweight without compromising on protection or coverage and contains patented skincare compounds to keep your skin hydrated.
Best Physical Sunscreen For Outdoor Activities
Solyph is a brand specifically created for active lifestyles and unsurprisingly, the Face The Wild, Sun Cream SPF 50+ PA+++, $49 (US $36) is an excellent pregnancy-safe physical sunscreen for outdoor activities, sensitive and/or acne prone skin.
Best Sunscreen To Use Under Makeup
The Jeju Botanical Sun Cream SPF 50+ PA++++, $39 (US $28), is a chemical sunscreen with a matte finish that layers well with a SPF foundation. Formulated with antioxidant-rich White Lotus Extract, it is packed with other anti-ageing and skincare goodies to keep your skin at its best.
Best Chemical-Physical Hybrid Sunscreen
Looking for the best of both worlds? The Sun Project Shimmer Sun Essence SPF 30+ PA+++, $32 (US $23) uses both chemical and physical sun protection actives in this light and velvety smooth cream. Pink micro-pearls enhance natural radiance as it protects your skin against harmful UV rays.
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About the writer
Stacy Liu, an American-born Chinese, is the beauty editor at Asian Beauty X obsessively writing about new beauty launches, the best hair products, and the skincare formulas that really work for every skin type.