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Physical vs Chemical Sunscreen: Which One Is Right For You?

image of hand holding a sunscreen
Both physical and chemical sunscreens can be effective in preventing sunburn and reducing the risk of skin cancer | Image courtesy Onela Ymeri @ Unsplah

Shielding yourself from the sun’s invisible yet powerful rays is one of the most impactful things you can do to protect your youthful glow. After all, left unchecked the UV radiation in sunlight can cause your skin to wrinkle, sag, and spot prematurely—even manifest as life-threatening skin cancers.

So don’t be fooled into believing you can forgo sunscreen. But with so many formulations on the market, which type of sun block should you stock up on? The two main categories are physical and chemical sunscreen, each with their pros and cons.

Selecting the right sunscreen shield for your skin will help you preserve your radiant complexion for decades to come.

I. What is physical sunscreen vs chemical sunscreen

Physical sunscreen and chemical sunscreen are two types of sunscreens that work differently to protect the skin from the harmful effects of the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays.

Physical sunscreen, also known as mineral or inorganic sunscreen, contains active mineral ingredients such as titanium dioxide or zinc oxide. These minerals act as a physical barrier, reflecting and scattering UV rays away from the skin. Physical sunscreens are effective as soon as they are applied and are typically less irritating to the skin. They provide broad-spectrum protection against both UVA and UVB rays.

Chemical sunscreen, on the other hand, contains organic (carbon-based) compounds such as avobenzone, octinoxate, or oxybenzone. These compounds work by absorbing UV radiation and converting it into heat, which is then released from the skin. Chemical sunscreens need to be applied about 20 minutes before sun exposure to allow the ingredients to fully absorb into the skin. They provide effective protection against UVA and UVB rays but may be more likely to cause skin irritation or allergic reactions in some individuals.

II. What is Physical Sunscreen

Physical sunscreen is made with ingredients that sit on top of the skin and physically block the sun’s rays from reaching your skin. The most common physical sunscreen ingredients are zinc oxide and titanium dioxide.

How does physical sunscreen work?

Physical sunscreen works by reflecting and scattering the sun’s UV rays away from your skin. This means that it doesn’t absorb into your skin, which makes it a good choice for people with sensitive skin.

Pros and cons of physical sunscreen


  • Physical sunscreen is non-comedogenic, meaning it won’t clog pores.
  • Physical sunscreen is less likely to irritate sensitive skin.
  • Physical sunscreen is water-resistant.


  • Physical sunscreen can leave a white cast on the skin.
  • Physical sunscreen can be more expensive than chemical sunscreen.

III. What is Chemical Sunscreen

Chemical sunscreen is made with ingredients that absorb the sun’s UV rays and convert them into heat, which is then released from your body. The most common chemical sunscreen ingredients are oxybenzone, avobenzone, octinoxate, and octisalate.

How does chemical sunscreen work?

Chemical sunscreen works by absorbing the sun’s UV rays and converting them into heat. This heat is then released from your body.

Pros and cons of chemical sunscreen


  • Chemical sunscreen is more cosmetically elegant than physical sunscreen.
  • Chemical sunscreen is more affordable than physical sunscreen.
  • Chemical sunscreen is easier to apply than physical sunscreen.


  • Chemical sunscreen can be irritating to sensitive skin.
  • Chemical sunscreen can be absorbed into the bloodstream.
  • Chemical sunscreen can break down in the presence of water and sweat, so it needs to be reapplied more often than physical sunscreen.

IV. Which type of sunscreen is right for you?

The best type of sunscreen for you will depend on your individual needs and preferences. If you have sensitive skin, you may want to choose a physical sunscreen. If you have oily skin, you may want to choose a chemical sunscreen. And if you’re looking for a sunscreen that’s easy to apply and affordable, you may want to choose a chemical sunscreen.

How to apply sunscreen correctly

No matter which type of sunscreen you choose, it’s important to apply it correctly. Here are some tips for applying sunscreen correctly:

  • Apply sunscreen 15 minutes before going outside.
  • Apply sunscreen to all exposed areas of skin, including your face, neck, ears, and hands.
  • Use an SPF of 30 or higher.
  • Reapply sunscreen every two hours, or more often if you’re sweating or swimming.

V. Last Thoughts

Sunscreen is an important part of your skincare routine. It protects your skin from the sun’s harmful UV rays, which can cause premature aging, wrinkles, and even skin cancer. By following these tips, you can protect your skin from the sun’s harmful rays and keep it looking its best.