The Difference Between Physical and Chemical Sunscreen
July 08, 20203 min read
You’ve probably been using sunscreen for as long as you can remember. It’s a constant in your skincare regimen and a must-have on beach trips. It’s essential in protecting your skin from harmful UVA and UVB rays in order to maintain a youthful glow and reduce the risk of skin cancer.
But have you ever checked what kind of sunscreen you are using? Below, we explore the differences between physical and chemical sunscreen to help you narrow down which one you should use.
You’re probably familiar with this type — tubes of chemical sunscreens line beauty aisles by the dozen, after all. However, you may not be aware what exactly is in it. Chemical sunscreens are formulated with compounds that absorb UV rays, namely oxybenzone, octinoxate, octisalate, and avobenzone. These sunscreen compounds absorb UV rays, converts them into heat, and then releases them.
Chemical sunscreens typically come in a liquid or gel format; they're thin in nature and are typically applied like lotion. However, you need about a teaspoon’s worth of sunscreen to properly cover your face; that much product can leave skin feeling heavy and uncomfortable, especially if you have oily skin. Even worse: If you have heat-sensitive skin, you may experience irritation, redness, and stinging. Those who are prone to breakouts may also experience more pore-clogging, as sunscreen needs to be reapplied constantly.
The other type of sunscreen is physical sunscreen, otherwise known as sun block. Generally safe for children and pregnant women, it’s made of mineral-based ingredients that block both UVA and UVB rays instead of absorbing them. Once applied, it stays on top of your skin and works like a shield or a mirror, so that the UV rays bounce off when they hit.
Physical sunscreen is ideal for those with sensitive skin as well as those who are on the go. There's no need to wait for it to settle on your skin; you can be out the door and under the sun in minutes after applying it. If you choose to go with a dry or powder format, reapplying is hassle-free, as you can easily refresh your sun protection layer with a brush or sponge every few hours.
To further add to its pros, physical sunscreen doesn’t harm the environment, particularly marine life. Studies estimate that 25% of the sunscreen ingredients that we apply eventually end up in the water and certain chemicals (that are not in physical sunscreens, thankfully!) have been identified to be harmful to corals.
Of course, physical sunscreen also has its downs; some formulas leave a white cast on your skin, while others fade quickly (meaning you'll need to reapply sooner) especially if you're sweating or swimming. With the help of setting mists, however, you can increase its staying power long enough until it's time to reapply after a few hours.
So, Which One Do I Get?
Now you know about the two types of sunscreen, how they work, and their pros and cons. But the question remains: which one should you get?
For many, chemical sunscreens remain a popular format, despite the fact that they aren't reef-safe. In fact, Hawaii is banning sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate by 2021, as these compounds stress out developing corals and contribute to coral bleaching. There are also concerns around oxybenzone being absorbed by the skin and acting as a hormone or endocrine disruptor, meaning it interferes with the body's natural hormone functions.
In comparison, physical sunscreens are considered relatively harmless, as physical blockers like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide stay on top of the skin without being absorbed. At Ellana, we create all of our face base with physical SPF; they're formulated to be reef-safe, non-comedogenic, talc-free, and lightweight for long-wearing comfort, so you can be shielded from UVA and UVB rays without irritation.
Skin protection without compromise
Love the liquid format of chemical sunscreens, but don't want any of the risks? You can opt for the multi-purpose Original Glow BB Foundie, with physical SPF blockers, the coverage of a foundie, and the skin-loving benefits of a BB cream. It's formulated with SPF 50 to shield your skin from UV rays and environmental stressors, plus its ingredients don’t harm the environment so it's a win for more than just your skin!