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What Is The Difference Between Chemical And Physical Sunscreen?

chemical vs physical sunscreen


Dermatologists are always preaching the necessity of year-round SPF protection. I mean, how could they not? Sunscreen is an essential step in order to protect yourself from developing melanoma and photo-ageing – something no one wants!

We recommend using a formula with an SPF of 30+ daily, all year round. Sunscreen should be applied in the morning after you have completed your skincare routine, but many people are unsure of whether they should be going for a chemical or physical sunscreen.

If you have been Googling away, trying to understand the technical-scientific jargon of sunscreen, then look no further. We have created your go-to guide on what the difference is between the two – and which would be better for you as an individual.

What Is The Difference Between UVA And UVB?

First of all, we want to start by saying that you need to protect yourself against both of these rays. UVB is the one that makes you turn red and helps you create vitamin D, whereas UVA is the one that is responsible for free radicals and photo-ageing. It is important to remember that UVA is prevalent all year round – not just when the sun shines, which is why protecting your skin all year round is so important. 

So, when you’re looking for a sunscreen to purchase, you should look out for labelling that states “broad spectrum” as this protects against both UVA and UVB.

What Is Chemical Sunscreen?

 This is the sunscreen you will be most used to, it’s the one that your Mum covered you in as a kid – what you would buy in Boots, Soltan, Pizbuin, Ambre Solare type.  To put it basically, a chemical sunscreen uses the active ingredients that absorb into your skin and then it absorbs the UV rays, converts the rays into heat and then releases them from the body. To know if a sunscreen is a chemical one, you should look out for ingredients such as Oxybenzone or Avobenzone.

Fundamentally, these sunscreens work really well – however, the downside is the possible health risks associated with the ingredients and the guarantee if is absorbing. Secondly, you also have to remember, that no matter how much a product will say it is water-resistant, it can never be 100%. So, when you’re in the sea on holiday, the ingredients from the sunscreen are being washed off into the ocean and damaging coral and sea wildlife.

What Is Physical Or Mineral Sunscreen?

It is an emulsion cream with two actives called Zinc Oxide and Titanium Dioxide, they are physical blocking particles for your skin while reflecting the light back – a bit like a barrier. They sit on the top of the skin and deflect and scatter damaging UV rays away from the skin. They are super easy to identify as they have a white texture to them – think cricketers popping Zinc sticks over their cheeks.

The problem lies with physical/mineral sunscreens provide a challenge to apply as they tend to be thicker and whiter.  However, there are so many brands frantically working to try and formulate a product that is easy to apply – while tackling the difficulties of creating a physical/mineral sunscreen.

On the flip side of this, these sunscreens can be eco-certifiable and Soil Associated, but this is not to get confused with them being organic – because they are not. Confusingly scientists tend to refer to these as organic and the oxybenzone type as chemical.

Is Chemical Sunscreen Bad?

But let’s answer the big question: Is physical sunscreen better than chemical? Natural and ‘green/clean’ brands try to make you believe that physical sunscreens have no chemicals and are great for your health. Everything is a chemical, from water to yourself as a physical being – so, please don’t believe the word chemical means evil. While avoiding oxybenzone, in our opinion, a good plan - there is also an issue on the physical sunscreen side with nanoparticles. The problem arises regarding the size of the zinc and titanium particles and where they can absorb into your body.

Physical sunscreens, while more difficult to apply, don’t tend to be formulated with the silicone slip of chemical sunscreen and do tend to stay on better, in our opinion, if you are doing sports and subsequently sweating. While there is no magic answer as to which is best: physical or chemical sunscreen, we can clarify one final thing:

Can I use both physical and chemical sunscreen?

We hope this has helped with any confusion you may have had surrounding the difference between physical and chemical sunscreens. Watch this space on a Proverb sunscreen! We are already trying physical/ mineral formulas in the lab; they are not easy to make!

Is Piz Buin a chemical sunscreen?

Piz Buin is a chemical sunscreen that uses the UV filters to absorb radiation from the sun. It is an emulsion cream with two actives called Zinc Oxide and Titanium Dioxide, they are physical blocking particles for your skin while reflecting the light back – a bit like a barrier.

Is Soltan a chemical sunscreen?

Yes, Soltan is a chemical sunscreen, which means it absorb the UV radiation and expel it as infrared. Soltan chemical sunscreen offers five-star UVA protection when SPF 30 - it is also a cheaper alternative for those on a budget.

Is Ambre Solaire a chemical sunscreen?

Ambre Solaire is a chemical sunscreen, available to purchase from most food and beauty stores. The brand has a Sensitive Protect Spray with an SPF of 40, that is fragrance free and excludes known sunscreen irritants - great for someone who has more sensitive skin.