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Like many skincare products, sun protection can be confusing, and there’s a lot of opposing information out there about the various types of sunscreens and which is best. Natural? Physical? Mineral? Chemical? What does it all mean? All valid questions where answers are much needed. That's why we asked celebrity esthetician Renée Rouleau as well as board-certified dermatologist Hadley King to lay it all out for us.
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See, what feels (or looks) best isn't always the healthiest option for your skin. But that being said, you don't have to feel pressure to walk around with a chalky white nose either. Through expert know-how and recent technology, there's a way to incorporate sunscreen into your skin and makeup routines undetected (but still, you know, protected).
Keep scrolling to learn the difference between physical vs. chemical sunscreens and find which one is right for you.
What Are Physical Sunscreens?
“Physical sunscreens contain active mineral ingredients, such as titanium dioxide or zinc oxide, which work by sitting on top of the skin to deflect and scatter damaging UV rays away from the skin,” Rouleau says. “They offer protection against both UVA and UVB rays and protect from the sun as soon as they are applied.” You may also hear them referred to as mineral or natural sunscreens.
Rouleau likes physical sunscreens because they are less likely to clog pores. The downside? They can feel heavy, leave a film on the skin, and can rub or sweat off easily (which means you'll need to reapply more often). King agrees, and generally recommends physical sunscreens instead of chemical sunscreens since they block a wide range of UV wavelengths and they are photostable (meaning, the product won't degrade once the sun hits it). "Physical sunscreens have come a long way from their chalky, white, hard-to-spread predecessors," adds King. "There are now many brands making physical sunscreens that are easy to apply and look great."
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What Are Chemical Sunscreens?
“Chemical sunscreens contain organic (carbon-based) compounds that create a chemical reaction and work by changing UV rays into heat, then releasing that heat from the skin," explains Rouleau. “Chemical sunscreens tend to be thinner and, therefore, spread more easily on the skin, making them more wearable for daily use. Less is needed to protect the skin because there is no risk of leaving spaces between the sunscreen molecules after application.” Rouleau also notes that chemical sunscreen formulas tend to be easier to add more skin-benefiting ingredients to (think: peptides and enzymes).
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Physical Sunscreens vs. Chemical Sunscreens: The Key Difference
Whereas physical sunscreens sit on top of the skin and block rays at the surface, chemical sunscreens absorb them, like a sponge. And though chemical sunscreens used to have a bad rap for containing oxybenzone, which has been linked to allergies, hormone disruption (estrogenic activity), and cell damage, according to King, brands have come a long way and there are formulas that are free of this ingredient and remain just as effective without it.
“I believe it’s best to use both physical and chemical sunscreens on your skin (if your skin is compatible with the formulas) because you’ll get both inside and outer protection,” Rouleau says. We did our research, and if you’re using physical blockers, you want them to be zinc oxide (over titanium dioxide). Zinc is an anti-irritant and well tolerated by sensitive skin types (it’s often found in baby products). Zinc oxide also provides the most complete UVA protection (while titanium dioxide is weaker in UVA protection). But you also need UVB protection. Enter chemical blockers. If your skin tolerates both forms, use a combo sunscreen to get the best of both worlds and the best protection.
Just as important as the formula you choose, King says to be aware of expiration dates. "If the sunscreen has expired or the ingredients have been exposed to direct sunlight, the ingredients in the formula can break down and render them ineffective and potentially irritating to the skin," she says.
Which One Is Right for You?
So, which one is best? It’s a trick question (sort of). When it comes to acne-prone skin, the type of sunscreen you choose can make a difference. "Two things can cause sunscreen-related breakouts: occlusion of the pores by comedogenic materials or a sensitivity reaction to chemical UV-blocking ingredients," notes King. For this reason, she recommends physical sunscreens over chemical, but also notes that breakouts can commonly be caused by other emollients, fragrances, preservatives, or other ingredients. "Your best bet is to look for 'non-comedogenic' on the label," she says. (FYI: Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are both typically viewed as non-comedogenic.)
Also, for some people with darker skin types, King notes that it can be difficult to find a physical sunscreen that doesn't make skin appear pasty. "Chemical sunscreens will be easier in this regard, but there are physical sunscreens, particularly tinted ones, that shouldn't have this issue either," she notes. No matter what formula you choose, always remember to reapply your sunscreen every two hours as well as after swimming.
Breakouts can come from any of the ingredients in the product, not only from the active sunscreen ingredients. If you have sensitive or acne-prone skin, do a patch test before applying it all over your face.
“Ultimately, the best sunscreen is one that you enjoy wearing a generous coat of (since it’s not so much about the number but rather how much you apply) and is compatible for your skin type,” Rouleau says. The bottom line is to wear whatever kind of sunscreen actually gets you to wear sunscreen.
Smijs TG, Pavel S. Titanium dioxide and zinc oxide nanoparticles in sunscreens: focus on their safety and effectiveness. Nanotechnol Sci Appl. 2011;4:95-112. doi:10.2147/NSA.S19419