Physical Sunscreen vs. Chemical Sunscreen: Which Is Better?

Everyone knows that sunscreen is a major part of the skincare routine because it is extremely needed to protect our skin from sun damage, early-onset aging, skin cancer, UVA and UVB rays.

In my 26-years of living, I have never known that there were two types of sunscreens. Yes, I need to educate myself more because, to be honest, I thought all sunscreens are the same except for its texture whether it’s milky, gel, cream, or spray.

When I came across a tweet on Twitter, that made me rethink about the sunscreen that I’ve been using. Is it physical or chemical?

What’s the difference? And which one is better?

Physical Sunscreen

A physical sunscreen (sometimes called mineral sunscreen or sunblock) uses minerals such as zinc oxide or titanium dioxide to deflect UV rays away from the skin. These formulations literally sit on the skin and block or scatter UV radiation before it can penetrate the skin.

There are several benefits of using a physical sunscreen:

  • Blocks both UVA and UVB rays (all physical sunscreens are broad-spectrum)
  • Works as soon as it’s applied to the skin
  • Unlikely to irritate the skin, great for sensitive skin types
  • Unlikely to clog skin pores as it does not deeply penetrate the skin
  • Can limit rosacea and redness as it deflects heat from the skin
  • Long shelf life

However, there are some cons to physical sunscreen:

  • Can be rubbed off more easily than chemical sunscreen, especially when it comes in contact with water or sweat (requiring reapplication)
  • Often leaves white streaks on the skin that require more effort to fully rub in
  • Pores can appear as white spots when sweating
  • Not ideal for use under makeup
  • Maybe less protective if not properly applied to all areas of the skin

Chemical Sunscreen

Chemical sunscreens (sometimes called chemical absorbers) use chemical carbon compounds that convert UV radiation to heat, which is later released from the body. Common ingredients of chemical sunscreens include oxybenzone or octinoxate.

Some benefits of chemical sunscreens include the following:

  • A thinner formulation makes application easier
  • Does not cause significant streaking or white spots
  • Smaller amounts are needed to cover large areas of the skin (spreads easily)
  • Often found contain other skincare ingredients like peptides and growth factors which can provide added benefits
  • Is more resistant to sweat or water compared to a physical sunscreen

Cons of chemical sunscreens:

  • They only start to be effective 20 minutes after application to the skin
  • More likely to irritate the skin (with higher SPF formulations often being more irritating)
  • Protection levels begin to drop when in direct UV light (requiring more frequent reapplication)
  • Increases the change of redness in rosacea-prone skin types
  • Can clog the pores, and thus exacerbate acne
  • Often can drip into the eyes causing irritation/stinging
  • Some states, including Hawaii, are beginning to ban chemical sunscreen use as they are not “reef safe” and can damage the oceanic ecosystem.
For a better understanding, here’s a visual of physical sunscreen vs. chemical sunscreen by Derma Essentia.

Which Is Better?

In the end, the best type of sunscreen for you could depend on the specific situation your skin will be put under. Personally, I think physical sunscreen is better because it contains ingredients like zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide that actually block ultraviolet radiation. These two ingredients are actually rocks that are ground into a very fine consistency that blocks both UVA and UVB rays. Physical sunscreens aren’t typically absorbed into the bloodstream and have been around for a long time. People weren’t keen on using them because they went on white and were more difficult to wash off.

There are new and improved physical sunscreens that are cosmetically so transparent that they can be worn on a daily basis to work, school, gym and beyond without anyone noticing. And, you won’t feel like you’re wearing sunscreen. There is also a combination of both which is called hybrid in the market since both physical and chemical sunscreens have pros and cons. You just have to find the right one that works for you.


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