Physical Sunscreen vs. Chemical Sunscreen: Which Should You Use?

May 31, 2022
Jessica Khorsandi
By: Jessica Khorsandi | by L'Oréal
person applying face cream

You already know all the reasons it’s important to wear sunscreen every single day, but if you haven’t found the right formula for you, you may be tempted to skip it. Maybe your formula feels greasy and you suspect it’s clogging your pores. Or maybe it’s thick and no matter how hard you attempt to rub it in, it still leaves a conspicuous white cast behind.

The first step in finding a sunscreen that’s better suited for you is to understand the difference between chemical and physical formulas. Here, we explain the pros and cons of each, with the help of two dermatologists.

What Is Physical (or Mineral) Sunscreen?

Physical, or mineral, sunscreen contains one or both of these active mineral ingredients: zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. “Physical block is made of zinc and/or titanium oxide and it acts like a wall that does not absorb in the skin,” says Dr. Elizabeth Houshmand, a double board-certified dermatologist based in Texas. “It sits on the skin as a protective layer.” One of our favorites is the CeraVe Hydrating Mineral Sunscreen SPF 50 Face Lotion.

“I usually recommend physical blockers, which tend to create less issues with allergies overall, for people with sensitive skin,” says Dr. Janelle Vega, a Miami-based dermatologist and co-founder of Bia Life. “I also think physical blockers are a better choice for people with heat-sensitive skin disorders such as melasma because you are not absorbing the sun’s rays, thereby leading to a decrease in heat production.”

Dr. Houshmand notes that physical sunscreen is less likely to clog pores, so it’s great for acne-prone skin types as well.

cerave hydrating mineral sunscreen spf 50 face lotion

What Is Chemical Sunscreen?

“Chemical sunscreens are made up of ingredients that absorb into the skin, and will subsequently absorb the rays and scatter UV rays into the skin as heat,” says Dr. Vega. Common ingredients used in chemical sunscreens are octocrylene, avobenzone, octinoxate, octisalate, oxybenzone, homosalate and helioplex. Our go-to chemical sunscreen is the La Roche-Posay Anthelios UV Correct Face Sunscreen SPF 70 with Niacinamide.

Dr. Houshmand says that one of the biggest benefits of chemical sunscreens is that they’re available in multiple formulations, such as aerosol sprays, lotions and sticks. And because they are designed to absorb into skin, they can be easier to apply.

However, according to Dr. Houshmand, chemical sunscreens can irritate sensitive skin types. “Additionally, the sun can break down their effectiveness over time, so it’s important to reapply throughout the day,” she says.

la roche posay anthelios uv correct face sunscreen spf 70 with niacinamide

The Pros and Cons of Each

Physical sunscreens should start working as soon as you apply them, whereas chemical sunscreens typically require about 20 minutes to become fully effective, according to Dr. Houshmand. 

The texture of physical sunscreen is typically denser, thicker and more opaque than chemical sunscreens, and can often appear chalky and leave a white cast, especially on darker skin tones (Dr. Vega recommends looking for one that’s tinted to avoid this).

In addition, physical sunscreens tend to rub off more easily with sweat and water than chemical formulas. However, as mentioned earlier, the sun can naturally break down the barrier of chemical sunscreens, which means you’ll also have to reapply them throughout the day, even if you’re doing minimal activity outside.

In terms of which is right for you, it really depends on your skin type, your lifestyle and your personal preference of texture and application method. You’ll find that some formulas will contain both chemical and physical blockers, which can help narrow down your pick.

Photographer: Chaunte Vaughn

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