Physical and Chemical Sunscreen: What the Heck is the Difference?

July 18, 2018
By: Alanna Martine Kilkeary | by L'Oréal
Physical and Chemical Sunscreen: What the Heck is the Difference?

Whether you are a sun worshipper or have an occasional day in the sun here and there, you should wear sunscreen and know what type is best for you. There are different ingredients in sunscreens that can protect you from the sun’s harmful rays. And there are sunscreens that contain physical sunscreen ingredients, chemical sunscreen ingredients or a combination of both — but what’s the difference between these ingredients? Ahead, find a little cheat sheet we put together to ease all of your sun protection woes.

Physical Sunscreen

A physical (or mineral) sunscreen consists of ingredients called zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. They serve as a barrier on the skin, blocking the sunlight from hitting it. Physical sunscreens (like La Roche Posay Anthelios SPF 50) actually go above and beyond and reflect the sunlight right off your body. This solution may seem like a no brainer when it comes to protecting oneself, but many avoid physical sunscreens because they tend to leave a white residue on the skin that is difficult to wash off.

Chemical Sunscreen

On the contrary, chemical sunscreens with ingredients like avobenzone and octocrylene can’t actually block the sunlight the way physical sunscreens can. Instead, they filter sunlight and reduce the amount of ultraviolet rays that pass through to the skin.  Depending on the ingredients, some chemical formulas protect against ultraviolet B light while some guard against ultraviolet A. Chemical sunscreens (like Kiehl’s Super Fluid UV Defense SPF 50) are generally more common than physical sunscreens and people like them because they are colorless and do not leave white streaks behind. The downside is that some people can be allergic to the chemical ingredients, and the solution can sting if it gets into the eyes.

So, which works for me?

The ingredients found in physical sunscreen block the most sunlight, so if you tend to be outdoors a lot, have fair or sensitive skin or have a history of melanoma or another type of skin cancer, look for sunscreens containing zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. If you want a sunblock that will be absorbed into the skin and has an invisible finish, opt for a formula containing only chemical ingredients. No matter what you choose, remember these three golden rules: Look for an SPF of 15 or higher, make sure the formula is “broad spectrum,” and always apply at least a teaspoon to your face and two tablespoons to your body.