Still Confused about Chemical Vs Physical Sunscreens?

Like choosing this month’s essential Netflix binge watch, sunscreens are tricky business. The difference is they’re way more important than the choice between Stranger Things and House Of Cards.

Let’s get one thing straight, while the case for getting your daily fix of vitamin D might be tempting, the damaging effects of the sun are a much stronger prosecution.

Sunlight is split into various forms of radiation, but the one we seriously care about is UV (ultraviolet). Although UV radiation constitutes just a small portion of the sun’s electromagnetic spectrum and is invisible to the naked eye, it damages the DNA of our skin cells. And that makes us angry.

UV rays are split into three wavelengths: UVA, UVB and UVC. UVC rays are too short to penetrate the Earth’s ozone layer, so we don’t really care about C. But the As and Bs of this world are a different story.

UVA rays have the longest wavelength and count for about 90 percent of the UV radiation reaching the Earth’s surface. They are also responsible for more than 80 percent of skin aging, because they go right down to the dermis of the skin, releasing free radicals and causing damage to collagen, elastin and all manner of other DNA changes.

Shorter in wavelength than UVA, UVB rays are only able to penetrate the outermost layer of the skin, which is why they play a big part in tanning and are the primary cause of sunburn.

When it comes to protection, bar hibernating for the entire year or covering yourself from head to toe every time you step outside, a medical-grade, broad-spectrum sunscreen is the best only way to go. But what’s the difference between physical and chemical sunscreens? And is one better than the other? Let’s see, shall we?

What Is A Physical Sunscreen?

Also known as sunblock or mineral sunscreen, physical sunscreen contains active mineral ingredients such as zinc oxide or titanium dioxide that work by sitting on top of the skin to deflect and scatter the sun’s damaging rays. Remember those white, gloopy, impossible-to-rub-in sunscreens of your youth? They were physical sunscreens.

But don’t dismiss them quite yet because physical sunscreens have a lot going for them. Thankfully, technology has come a long way in recent years, so although they can still feel a little heavy, most formulations are micronized and go on much easier than those of yesteryear. Physical sunscreens also naturally protect against both UVA and UVB radiation which makes them automatically what’s known as ‘broad spectrum.’ They also provide instant protection – meaning you don’t have to wait 20 minutes after applying before heading out into the sun – and they’re less likely to clog your pores or cause sensitivities which is obviously a bonus for oily or blemish-prone skin types.

On the negative side, physical sunscreens are still generally thicker than their chemical counterparts, and because they sit on top of the skin, they do tend to rub and/or sweat off more easily, so reapplying after swimming, towel-drying etc. is an absolute must. Oh, and you know that infamous white cast we previously spoke of? Yeah, that can still be an issue…

Ones To Try: Alastin Skincare HydraTint Pro Mineral Broad Spectrum Sunscreen SPF 36; ZO Skin Health Broad-Spectrum Sunscreen SPF 50 and SkinMedica Essential Defense Mineral Shield Broad Spectrum SPF 35 Sunscreen.

What Is A Chemical Sunscreen?

Unlike physical sunscreen, chemical sunscreen penetrates the skin and absorbs the sun’s rays like a sponge. Chemical sunscreen works by combining multiple ingredients to create a chemical reaction that changes UV radiation into heat, which is then released by the skin.

Typical ingredients found in a chemical sunscreen are avobenzone, oxybenzone, octinoxate and octisalate. These combined chemical formulations are generally lighter and thinner than physical sunscreens, so are often preferred for daily wear, but they do take time to work so can’t be used for instant protection. Chemical sunscreen is also more likely to cause irritation and redness – especially if you have dry or sensitive skin – and the higher the SPF, the higher this risk of irritation. It can also sting your eyes and may be a tad pore-clogging, but some of our favorite medical-grade brands have produced non-comedogenic formulas (non pore-clogging), so don’t be put off – just ensure your dermatologist recommends only the very best for your skin type;)

Ones To Try: Jan Marini Skin Research Antioxidant Daily Face Protectant Broad Spectrum SPF 33 and SkinCeuticals Light Moisture UV Defense Sunscreen Broad Spectrum SPF 50.

Final Note

Both physical and chemical sunscreens are super-effective – especially when you buy clinically-proven, medical-grade brands, of course. Interestingly, many modern-day sunscreens combine the power of both physical and chemical sunscreens, so which one you choose is up to you, your skin type, your lifestyle and the recommendations of your derm.

What matters more than anything is that you ensure broad-spectrum coverage and apply your product generously and diligently. Got it? Good.