Natural Isn't Always Better: What You Don't Know About Sunscreen

Woman applying sunscreen


Like many skincare products, sunscreen can be confusing, and there’s a lot of opposing information out there about what’s best. Natural? Physical? Mineral? Chemical? What does it all mean? All valid questions. Which is why we asked celebrity esthetician extraordinaire Renée Rouleau to lay it out for us.

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). 

Physical Sunscreen vs. Chemical Sunscreen

“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. You may also hear them referred to as mineral or natural sunscreens. “They offer protection against both UVA and UVB rays and protect from the sun as soon as they are applied.”

Rouleau likes physical sunscreens because they are less likely to clog pores but can feel heavy and/or leave a film on the skin and they rub and/or sweat off easily.

“Chemical sunscreens contain organic (carbon-based) compounds, such as oxybenzone, octinoxate, octisalate, and avobenzone, which create a chemical reaction and work by changing UV rays into heat, then releasing that heat from the skin.”

Whereas physical sunscreens sit on top of the skin and block rays at the surface, chemical sunscreens absorb them, like a sponge. “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 noted the formula is easier to add more skin-benefiting ingredients to, like peptides and enzymes. But they do pose a higher risk for irritation.

Chemical vs Physical Sunscreen
Michela Buttignol/BYRDIE

Why Both?

So, which one is best? It’s a trick question (sort of). “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.

“The Renée Rouleau Daily Protection SPF 30 ($58) uses both physical and chemical sunscreens. The zinc oxide (physical) creates a lightweight finish with natural antimicrobial agents for acne-prone skin types, while the octinoxate and octisalate (chemical) that is used makes it spreadable and easy to apply.”

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.

The Takeaway

“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 wear whatever kind of sunscreen actually gets you to wear sunscreen. 

We do not apply nearly the right amount of SPF to our skin. You want to use about 1 teaspoon, a nickel-sized amount, for your entire face.

Check out combination chemical and physical (zinc oxide–only) sunscreens.

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