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Chemical vs physical sunscreen – what’s the difference?


The world of sunscreen can be tricky to navigate even for the most well-versed beauty lover. When we were kids, it was just the questionably-smelling white ointment our parents slathered us in upon setting up at the beach, leaving us inevitably vulnerable to being front-to-back crusted in sand, leading to deep-seated resentment towards sunscreens as an entire category.

Sunscreens have developed prominently since then, and we are given many variables to curb lingering concerns. One of the biggest questions one might ask themselves remains relatively unclear: what's better? chemical or physical sunscreen? Our answer is neither. If you're wearing sunscreen every day, you're correctly protecting your skin. What we can explain is the difference between the two for you to go forth and make your own calls.


Chemical sunscreen

Chemical sunscreens are the type of sunscreens that penetrate the epidermis and contain chemical compounds that work within the skin to absorb harmful UV rays and prevent sun damage. You'll often find ingredients like avobenzone and homosalate which act as a metaphorical sponge to absorb UVA and UVB rays before they can do too much damage.

The pros are that chemical formulations are usually lighter in texture, more breathable, and often invisible on the skin and can become dry to the touch. The cons, are that because one of the aforementioned ingredients isn't enough on it's own to properly protect from sun damage (and deem the product broad spectrum), multiple chemical ingredients are compounded together for a more effective protection.  This on occasion lead to increased sensitivity.


Physical sunscreen

Physical sunscreen does exactly what it sounds like it would do. Physical sunscreens create a physical barrier between your skin and reflects UVA and UVB rays, stopping them from doing damage. Because of this, they are usually naturally broad-spectrum and often contain Titanium Dioxide or Zinc Oxide, two ingredients that are commonly found in physical sunscreens.

The pros of physical sunscreen look like less sensitivity which makes them more suitable for all ages, plus zinc can aid in healing the skin, which is an added bonus. Cons mostly exist in the realm of them being associated with the thick, white sunscreens we knew as kids, but with the development of technology, this is far less of an issue than it used to be.


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Image credit: @purienne