Chemical vs Physical Sunscreen: What’s the Difference?

Each passing year brings about new beauty and fitness trends. As such, sunscreens have become increasingly popular in recent years. The crowd is going bonkers over sunscreen use, and for all the right reasons.

Not only do they protect your skin from harmful UV rays, but they also make your skin appear younger. 

Did you know that sunscreens fall into two categories? Chemical vs physical sunscreens. 

When you hit the store to shop for sunscreen, you might find yourself in a sea of products. There are rows of endless sunscreen categories; physical, chemical, lotions, roll-ons, sprays. Sounds confusing, right? 

You can have a hard time figuring out which one to buy. Is one better than the other? Which one would suit your skin? 

One important thing to understand is the difference between physical sunscreen and a chemical sunscreen. 

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What is a Chemical Sunscreen?

Man getting sunscreen on his skin.

You might freak out on reading the word ‘chemical’ on sunscreen packaging but guess what? FDA has tested six chemical ingredients found in chemical sunscreens. These include:

  • Octinoxate
  • Octocrylene
  • Avobenzone
  • Oxybenzone
  • Homosalate
  • Octisalate

These ingredients might not be too safe on your skin, but research is still going. They do, however, provide alternatives for UV rays protection. 

Let’s break down some pros and cons of chemical sunscreens.


  • Blocks out UVA and UVB rays of the sun
  • It appears thinner and spreads quickly on the skin
  • The non-sticky properties make them ideal for daily use.
  • It is waterproof and sweatproof


  • If you have sensitive skin, you might experience skin irritation after its application.
  • Becomes effective after 30 minutes of application
  • It converts UV rays into heat which can cause burning on the skin
  • It can potentially cause inflammation on acne-prone skin

What is a Physical Sunscreen?

Physical sunscreens are also known as mineral sunscreens. Why is that? Because it has zinc oxide and titanium oxide as their active ingredients. The FDA has approved both minerals, so they are both considered safe. 

There are pros and cons to mineral sunscreens. Let’s find out.


  • Protects the skin from UVA and UVB rays of the sun
  • It becomes effective right after its application (No more waiting like chemical sunscreens!)
  • Last longer on the skin
  • They are suitable for sensitive skin (less likely to irritate)
  • Good for skin prone to acne
  • Safe for babies


  • It appears heavy on the skin
  • Need frequent applications (they tend to wash off while swimming or sweating)
  • It appears chalk white on the skin.
  • Applying a fair amount is necessary to make it effective.

Chemical vs Physical Sunscreen: What’s the Difference?

If you want to know the critical difference between both sunscreens, just look at the product ingredient list. 

Physical sunscreens have ingredients that don’t cause any harm. On the other hand, chemical sunscreens contain ingredients that might be detrimental to your skin. 

Chemical sunscreens penetrate through your skin, but physical sunscreens remain on top of it. 

Indeed, a few ingredients found in chemical sunscreens are yet to be approved by FDA; we cannot say that chemical sunscreens are of no use. They last longer on the skin, spread quickly, and block out the harmful sun rays. 

Nonetheless, the minerals found in physical sunscreens are potentially safe; most people opt for this option. 

Want to know which option is best for you? Read on! 

Chemical vs Physical Sunscreen: Which One to Choose? 

First things first, it’s better not to go out in the sun at noontime because the UV rays are the strongest during these hours. However, work or other necessities can force you out of the home. Additionally, obtaining a sufficient amount of vitamin D is equally important. 

Hence, wearing sunscreen is a must! While the choice of sunscreen can be tricky, it’s not impossible. Here’s what you need to consider.

Choose Physical Sunscreen When 

  • You want sunscreen to work immediately after its application
  • Your skin gets irritated easily 
  • You experience skin conditions like eczema or psoriasis. 
  • You do not want any chemicals to enter your bloodstream.

Choose Chemical Sunscreen When

  • You do not like thick textured creams and lotions
  • Going out swimming or playing sports 
  • You want to avoid chalk-white sunscreen appearance 
  • You have oily skin 

What to Look For While Buying a Sunscreen? 

While now you might be able to puzzle out which sunscreen to buy, there are additional tips to keep in mind while shopping for sunscreen. 

Broad Spectrum 

UV rays coming from the sun.

See if the label has ‘broad spectrum’ or ‘broad spectrum UVA-UVB’ written on it. UV rays cause aging, skin cancer, and burns, so broad-spectrum sunscreen protects you from all such skin conditions. 


SPF stands for sun protection factor. The SPF number helps you determine how effective a sunscreen might be on your skin. For daily use, you can choose SPF 30; however, SPF 50 is an ideal option for days full of activity out in the sun. 

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Although mild scent sounds appealing, it’s best to stay away from scented sunscreens. If your skin is sensitive or tends to break out, perfumed sunscreen might not be the right option for you.

Besides, if you are an eco-freak, we have an additional tip for you. Avoid buying sunscreen with oxybenzone or octinoxate. These ingredients cause harm to coral reefs.

Coral Reefs are an integral part of the undersea ecosystem, and hurting them is certainly not a good idea!

Final Words

If you do not want to experience leathery skin, premature aging, or sunburn, grab on sunscreen without further delay. No matter which sunscreen you use, make sure you use it regularly. 

The best option for you is the one that appears light on your skin and doesn’t irritate it simultaneously. In addition to sunscreen, wearing a hat and protective eyewear can also help you protect your skin. 

Now that you know the difference between physical and chemical sunscreen, which one are you planning to buy?

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