Chemical vs Physical Sunscreen
Whether you are an avid outdoors person who loves to soak up the sun or you’re just someone who gets a normal dose of UV rays, it is highly recommended by dermatologists to apply any means of sun protection. With the ozone layer rapidly depleting this leaves very little protection to both our environment and our skin. While sunscreens mostly perform the same way in the sense of protecting your skin against the sun’s harmful UV rays, it is important to distinguish the difference between the protectants you are using. The two distinct kinds of sunscreen are chemical and physical. Here are their differences which may help you decide which is best for you.
WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN CHEMICAL & PHYSICAL SUNSCREENS?
Both types of sunscreens are incredibly common and known for protecting your skin against the sun. However, there are distinct differences. According to dermatologist Dr. Anna Chacon, “The main difference between chemical and physical sunscreens includes their ingredients and mechanisms. Just like it sounds, chemical sunscreens do contain chemical ingredients—chemical sunscreens contain organic compounds such as oxybenzone, Octinoxate, also known as Ethylhexyl methoxycinnamate, avobenzone and octisalate. Physical sunscreens have active mineral ingredients such as zinc oxide or titanium dioxide and reflect UV rays by sitting on top of your skin.”
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According to skin health expert Cheryl Woodman MChem, “The difference between chemical and physical (mineral) sunscreen is commonly misunderstood. The ingredients in the mineral or physical sun protectants sit atop the skin and act as a mirror to reflect the sun’s harmful UV rays. Whereas, the chemical sunscreens act as an absorbent “sponge” allowing the UV rays to be absorbed by preventing harmful penetration. This process happens because of the active chemicals like avobenzone, octinoxate or oxybenzone.”
Dr. Chacon stated that while chemical sun protectants may be more irritating, the upside is that because it is chemical it will be far more absorbent and offer protection without the frequent need to reapply.
HOW DO CHEMICAL AND PHYSICAL SUNSCREENS AFFECT THE BODY/ENVIRONMENT?
Knowing your skin type is essential to figuring out which sun protectant best suits your skin. “Sunscreens that contain zinc oxide are often recommended as the safest option for both your body and the environment. These sunscreens are physical. Chemical sunscreens on the other hand, are far less degradable, hence more damaging to the environment,” said Dr. Chacon. “But they do last longer on the skin and protect against harmful UV rays effectively.”
According to Dr. Chacon, if you are someone with a sensitive skin type, you should try finding a hypoallergenic vegan sunscreen that is mineral-based rather than chemical-based. She says, “The difference is that mineral-based sunscreens do not absorb the UV rays like chemical sunscreens, and reflect them instead.”
Thus, physical sun protectants sitting atop the skin—because of this it may not be as irritating to the skin but the sunscreen lacks durability when the body gets wet or sweats—could be a disadvantage because you may have to reapply more frequently.
WHICH ONE SHOULD YOU CHOOSE?
That is completely up to you. I would suggest consulting your dermatologist. Your choice should also be determined by knowing your skin type. As someone with sensitive skin, I would certainly be opting for physical sunscreen. The chemical sunscreens are allowing the ingredients to enter the body, whereas the physical or mineral-based sun protectors don’t contain those harmful chemicals. Also, the chemical sunscreens are scientifically proven to be incredibly damaging to the environment (coral reefs). Why wear something that has negative effects on both your own body and our environment? The positives of mineral sunscreen out way the positives of chemical sunscreen.
Mineral sunscreen is also less likely to clog your pores because it doesn’t contain active chemical ingredients that are likely to cause your skin irritation. Chemicals like oxybenzone, Octinoxate, also known as Ethylhexyl methoxycinnamate, avobenzone are found to be the most damaging for both the body and environment.
Overall, choosing a sunscreen comes down to personal preferences. Both chemical and physical sun protectants will successfully do their job which is to protect your skin against UV rays. But more than just skin protection, you should also take into account the chemicals you are putting into your body. There are safe alternatives and I would highly recommend a vegan sunscreen. These types of sun protectants contain no harmful chemicals and they are also safer alternatives for the environment. So, the next time you are out in the sun, think about the sunscreen you are using. Think about the effects it is having on your body and the environment. There are so many sunscreen options, so don’t be afraid to try different brands and types.
Dr Anna Chacon @ MyPsoriasisTeam
Cheryl Woodman MChem Scientist, Skin health expert @ honestyforyourskin.co.uk
The difference between physical and chemical sunscreen (piedmont.org)