What’s the Difference Between Physical and Chemical Sunscreen?

Ms. Christine Read

Sunscreen helps protect your skin from overexposure to UV radiation, which can lead to fine lines, wrinkles, and even skin cancers. The use of broad-spectrum sunscreens has been shown to lower the risk of skin cancers. Over the years, different formulations of sunscreen have been produced and studied. There is not one sunscreen that works for everyone, and there is no one brand that is the best. What works for some people may not work for others. Here, we will discuss the difference between physical and chemical sunscreens, as well as the pros and cons of each one.

Physical sunscreens are also known as mineral sunscreens and contain zinc oxide and titanium oxide. When applied, physical sunscreens act as shields and deflect UV rays to prevent sun damage. The pros associated with physical sunscreens include the fact that they do not get absorbed into the skin and are considered “safer,” especially for children and in pregnancy. They start working right away, whereas chemical sunscreens can take about thirty minutes to start working. They are also less likely to cause burning or irritation on the skin when applied. Cons for physical sunscreens include the fact that they can leave a white cast and are thicker and harder to apply. There are newer formulations of physical sunscreens that are tinted to help with the white film that can be left behind. The American Academy of Dermatology states that physical sunscreens are considered better for people with sensitive skin or acne prone skin.

Chemical sunscreens can contain ingredients such as oxybenzone, avobenzone, octocrylene, homosalate, octinoxate and other chemicals. These sunscreens can be absorbed into the skin, and they prevent UV damage through a chemical reaction. These sunscreens absorb UV rays, turn them into heat and then release the heat through the skin. The pros associated with chemical sunscreens are that they are lighter and easier to apply and rub in. They do not leave a white cast on the skin like physical sunscreens do. Cons for chemical sunscreens include increased risk of irritation and burning on the skin as well as the fact that it takes chemical sunscreens about thirty minutes to start working, so there is a “wait time” after application.

There is an old adage that says that the best sunscreen is the one that you are going to use day in and day out. It is important to apply sunscreen every day and be sure to apply it generously in order to attain the UV protection needed to shield your skin from the harmful sun rays that can lead to premature aging, skin damage, and skin cancers.

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