Physical VS. Chemical Sunscreen

Did you know that May is National Melanoma and Skin Cancer Awareness month?  Each year, hundreds of thousands of Americans are diagnosed with some form of skin cancer, and sadly, one person dies every hour of every day in the United States of melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer.  One of the most effective actions you can take to protect yourself is by applying sun protection every day, regardless of the season.  But with so many options now available, many of us feel confused about what type of sunscreen is best for our skin.  Let’s shine the light on the differences between the two main types of sunscreen, physical and chemical SPFs.


Most of us know that we should wear sunscreen while outdoors to protect our skin from developing sunburn and to ward off premature aging and wrinkles.  In fact, it’s now known that sun exposure causes over 90% of visible aging (brown spots, redness, and wrinkles) on your skin!  This numbing statistic has prompted many of us to dutifully apply a sunscreen every day come rain or shine, but there are still some people who only reserve sunscreen application for tropical vacations and summer days out on the lake.  It’s crucial to find a formulation that works for your skin AND your lifestyle to ensure you are diligently protecting your skin every day.  Don’t worry; there are many options and formulas available in today’s marketplace that make it easy!


Physical Sunscreens

 Have you ever applied a sunscreen lotion and felt like you looked like “Casper the Friendly Ghost” afterward?  Chances are, you used a physical sunscreen.  Zinc and titanium oxide are two of the key ingredients in this type of sun protection, and they are white and opaquer by nature, therefore casting a white reflective sheen to the skin, almost like a fish scale.



Physical sunscreens work by reflecting the sun’s rays off the surface of your skin.  This quality does not allow for heat to be trapped against the skin, making them a more popular option for children and people with sensitive skin types.  Also, physical sunscreens tend to be formulated with more natural ingredients, as opposed to chemicals.


Chemical Sunscreens

 Unlike Physical sunscreens which reflect the damaging rays of the sun, chemical sunscreens absorb those rays and convert them to heat and infrared which then dissipate off your skin’s surface.  Common chemicals found in this type of sun protection are any ingredients that end in “-benzone,” such as Avobenzone, and others like Octinoxate and Octocrylene.

Although chemical sunscreens can be formulated in ways that are more versatile and desirable for people’s lifestyles (think sprays, gels, and makeup), it’s important to note that their characteristic of trapping heat against the surface of the skin can be troublesome and contraindicated for some skin types.  This is especially evident in rosacea and sensitive skin.  In addition, the chemicals in these sunscreens are now known to be very detrimental to the health of coral beds and ocean life.  As many of us apply sunscreen while snorkeling on tropical vacations, this can be especially damaging.  As a result, some states and countries are passing legislation to ban the use of chemical sunscreens to protect their reefs and ocean wildlife!


Which Sunscreen Type is best?

 This answer all depends on you and your skin.  Chemical sunscreens tend to be more diverse, less expensive, and more cosmetically appealing than physical sunscreens.  But, this comes with a tradeoff.  More chemicals in a product can heighten your chances of becoming irritated by the product or having a reaction.

When you visit a medical spa or your physician’s office, you will most likely find a broader array of physical sunscreens.  After a cosmetic procedure, it is generally safer to protect your skin with a physical formulation due to less chance of reaction and the fact that this type of sunscreen will not trap heat against your skin; essential qualities after procedures like laser skin resurfacing!

Many physical sunscreen companies have now added safe mineral tints to their formulations to tame down the white sheen that results from zinc.  Some patients and consumers find this favorable as it provides coverage, almost like a makeup foundation!  One of the best-selling sunscreens in the world, Revision Skincare’s Intellishade, does just this!


The most important aspect about choosing a sunscreen is making sure it is something that you like so you actually wear it!  That choice will be different for everyone.  Be sure to look for formulations that are labeled “broad spectrum” to ensure you are getting protections from BOTH UVA and UVB rays and that the SPF is at least 30 and approved by the Skin Cancer Foundation.  Consider meeting with a Licensed Esthetician who can help you identify your skin’s type and condition and properly match you to a sunscreen that will best benefit you!


Feeling confused about your options when it comes to sun protection?  Set up a consultation with a Clinical Skin Therapeutics Licensed Esthetician to help you decide!  Call (952) 997-9306 to get started and stay protected! 


Clinical Skin Therapeutics

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