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Choosing a sunscreen Physical vs Chemical?

By now you’ve heard that wearing sunscreen (even on cloudy days during the winter months) is the most effective way to protect your skin from sun damage, early onset aging, and even skin cancer. You probably also know that you should be using a broad-spectrum formulation (meaning it protects the skin from both UVA and UVB rays) with a high Sun Protection Factor (SPF).

Choosing a sunscreen, however, can be difficult since there are so many different types to choose from. There are two types of sunscreen formulations to choose from – physical sunscreens and chemical sunscreens.  Some products are a hybrid of both types.


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
  • May be less protective if not properly applied to all areas of the skin


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 skin care ingredients like peptides and growth factors which can provide added benefits
  • Is more resistant to sweat or water compared to a physical sunscreen

Drawbacks 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.

Types of sunscreens

1.Broad spectrum

A sunscreen labelled as a broad spectrum will have compounds which protect the skin from both UVA and UVB rays. Therefore, broad-spectrum sunscreens show up double actions on the skin with a mix of both organic (chemical) and inorganic (physical) compounds.

The most common ingredients of the broad spectrum are zinc dioxide, titanium dioxide, oxybenzone, dioxybenzone, octylmethyl, and salicylates.

So, for its dual nature, this type of sunscreen is highly recommended.

Skin type:

All skin types are suitable for these type of sunscreens

2. Creams

These creamy textured sunscreens are not a good option for summers or if you have oily skin. Basically, if you sweat a lot and if your skin produces more oil then this type of sunscreen is not yours. A single dab of cream also looks like too much because of its heavy texture.

These creamy sunscreens are foes to water and oil. So, in extreme hot weathers or humid places, these sunscreens are not a perfect match. Furthermore, they leave a white cast on the skin which appears to be odd and insane.

However, these sunscreens might not be perfect options for summers but they are really a great option for winters giving a matte look.

Skin type:

Dry to combination skin types

3. Gels

With a lightweight formula, these gel sunscreens are ideal for summers. These are transparent and very light on the skin.

Unlike creams, these gel type of sunscreens are not foes to sweat or oils. These hydrating sunscreens keep the skin moist and supple.

Surprisingly, gel sunscreens don’t leave a white cast on the skin.

Skin type:

Particularly recommended for oily skin. People with dry skin also can use in summers.

4. Powder

Powder sunscreens are a good option if you’re wearing makeup and heading out in the hot sun. Because you need to re-apply sunscreen every 4 hrs and what if you’re wearing makeup? How could you apply? If you apply creams, gels or lotions it might give a cakey appearance.

This extremely light product is a must try especially in humid places, if you sweat much and if your skin produces more oils.

Skin type:

This flawless powder sunscreen is recommended for all skin types

5. Lotions

These type of sunscreens are ultimately best body lotions. Like creams, these lotions are also suitable for winters giving a matte look.

Lotions have moisturizing properties which can keep the skin hydrated and moist for long hours.

Although, there are also some lotions which are light on the skin.

Skin type:

Dry and normal skin people

6. Sprays

Sprays are more convenient to use when you’re rushing out or when you’re so tired to apply & rub sunscreen all over the skin.

These sprays fastly absorb into the skin because of they very light, and non-greasy texture. Also, they’re sweat and water resistant.

Skin type:

For dry and wet skin

7. Tinted sunscreens

Seems like you don’t need any makeup products after the discovery of such tinted sunscreens. What do you say?

Also, on daily basis, when you head to college, school, office or any workplace you need not apply makeup always and waste a lot of time for the makeover. Just dab on these tinted sunscreens and enjoy the impressive effects.


In the end, the best type of sunscreen for you could depend on the specific situation your skin will be put under. If you plan on performing physical activity outdoors (like hiking or jogging on the beach) you may want to opt for a chemical sunscreen as it’s more resistant to sweat. However, a physical sunscreen may be better suited for casual day-to-day activity.  Bottom line find a sunscreen you don’t mind the look and feel of, therefore you will be more apt to using it.


Incidental vs. intense exposure:

For starters, the kind of sunscreen you use may vary depending on the type of outdoor exposure you are expecting. For incidental sun exposure — when you are outside only for minutes at a time — a sun protection factor (SPF) of 15, which filters out about 93 percent of UV radiation, is usually sufficient. Your sunscreen should have broad spectrum protection, meaning it effectively protects against significant portions of both the ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB) ranges of the light spectrum. Most broad-spectrum formulas contain multiple sunscreen ingredients. For extended, intense exposure, you should use a broadspectrum, water-resistant sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher. SPF 30 filters out up to 97 percent of the sun’s UV radiation; SPF 50 filters out up to 98 percent.

  1. For children’s skin: Chemicals can irritate children’s sensitive skin; PABA and oxybenzone in particular have been associated with skin reactions. The physical sunscreens zinc oxide and titanium dioxide tend to be better tolerated by people with sensitive skin and can usually be found in sunscreens for babies and children. Also, since getting children to use sunscreen is half the battle, try spray sunscreens or tubes with colorful packaging, which children may find more enjoyable to use. (Spray sunscreens should not be applied directly to the face; sprays should be misted into the hands, then spread on the face.)
  2. For allergy-, acne-, and rosacea-prone skin: Patients with allergy-prone skin or conditions such as acne or rosacea should avoid products containing preservatives or fragrances, as well as those containing PABA or oxybenzone. Again, the ingredients least likely to cause skin reactions are the physical sunscreens, as well as those made with salicylates and ecamsule. Allergy prone and rosacea patients should also avoid sunscreens containing alcohol. Patients with acne, however, may find gel formulas, which usually contain alcohol, more drying and less likely to aggravate acne. Acne-prone patients should avoid greasy sunscreens (often marketed as “creams”), since they may exacerbate breakouts; the UVB filter ensulizole has a lighter, less oily consistency than most other chemical sunscreens. However, people on topical acne medications, which tend to be drying, may find gels too irritating on their sensitized skin and may benefit from a light lotion or cream base. Since some acne medications increase sun sensitivity, making wearers more vulnerable to burning and skin damage, rigorous daily sun protection is especially important.
  3. For dry skin: Dry skin can benefit from moisturizing sunscreens. Numerous moisturizers are used in sunscreens; popular ones include lanolin, oils, and silicones such as dimethicone. Moisturizing sunscreens are often formulated as creams, lotions, or ointments, so look for these terms on the label.
  4. For people with melasma, a history of skin cancer, or very fair skin: For patients with a blotchy brown discoloration of the skin called melasma, those who have had skin cancer, or those who are very fair, sunscreen with an SPF of 30+ is recommended daily for extra protection. Since most people do not actually apply enough sunscreen to achieve the SPF listed on the container, frequent reapplication (after two hours out of doors or immediately after swimming or sweating heavily) is especially important.
  5. For darker skin tones: Individuals with darker skin who tan easily and rarely burn may feel they do not need to use sunscreen. However, like sunburn, a tan is the result of DNA damage from exposure to the sun’s harmful UV radiation. Darker-skinned people may also be wary of using physical sunscreens, especially titanium-based products, because they can look chalky and white on the skin. Newer preparations, however, tend to be micronized, which means the particles are small enough to allow them to blend in and disappear into the skin. Chemical sunscreens are also an option; look for a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 15+.
  6. For the older person: Although older individuals may have already received large amounts of UV light exposure in their lifetime, they can still benefit from sunscreen use. At any age, unprotected sun exposure increases the risk of developing new skin cancers and precancers; it also accelerates skin aging, leading to age spots, wrinkles, sagging, and leathery skin. Older people with decreased mobility may have a hard time applying sunscreen to areas such as the legs and back; for them, spray-on sunscreens may be a great option — they are now available both in chemical and physical formulations. Sprays should be applied until an even sheen appears on the skin.


Sunscreen is an important part of a sun protection regimen that should also include seeking the shade, avoiding UV tanning, and wearing protective clothing, including a broad-brimmed hat and UV-blocking sunglasses. By educating yourself about your many sunscreen options, you can be confident that the product you choose will fit your particular needs, offering you the best protection from the sun’s harmful rays — and helping to ensure that you use it regularly. After all, the sunscreen you apply consistently is the best sunscreen of all.

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