The Difference Between Physical and Chemical Sunscreens

Any dermatologist will tell you that the humble sunscreen is your best line of defence against ageing. The sun’s harmful UV rays is what causes most skin damage, leading to deep wrinkles, uneven skin tone, dull skin and age spots. As one of the most important products to have in your skincare regime, it’s critical to learn the basics of sunscreen so you make informed purchasing decisions.

Simply put, there are two types of sunscreens – physical and chemical sunscreens. Physical sunscreen use physical UV filters (the active ingredient in sunscreens that protects your skin against the sun’s rays), whilst chemical sunscreens use chemical UV filters.

The key differences between physical sunscreens and chemical sunscreen can be seen in the table below. When buying sunscreens, only one thing matters – the ingredients, so take some time to scan the ingredients list to make sure you’re choosing a quality sunscreen.

Physical Sunscreens Chemical Sunscreens
How does it protect your skin?  Physical sunscreens use physical UV filters that block and/or deflect the sun’s rays. The ingredients sit on top of your skin to block out UV rays. Chemical sunscreens work by having chemical UV filters penetrate the skin. They then absorb the sun’s rays and – through a series of chemical reactions – turns it into heat, and sends it back into the atmosphere.
Types of Ingredients There are only two types of ingredients that make a physical sunscreen:

  • Titanium dioxide
  • Zinc oxide
There are various types of chemical UV filters, and many skin care companies are investing money to formulate new ones. It takes time for these ingredients to be approved by medical agencies, but the most common ingredients that make a chemical sunscreen include:

  • Oxybenzone
  • Octinoxate
  • Avobenzone
  • Mexoryl SX and XL
  • Tinosorb S and M
Sunscreen’s suitability to skin types Physical sunscreens suit most skin types, since they are free from chemical UV filters. Those with sensitive skin will appreciate that the natural ingredients will not irritate the skin. Those with oily skin may find the thick texture of physical sunscreen uncomfortable though. One common complaint is that chemical sunscreens dry out the skin, so nowadays, many sunscreens also include moisturising ingredients to alleviate the issue.
Texture upon application Physical sunscreens tend to be thicker (since the physical UV filters sit on top of the skin) and thus more difficult to apply. They also tend to leave a white cast or white streak. Usually runny and feels light on the skin. Chemical sunscreens will appear white when it comes out of a tube, but after a few pats on the skin it should sink into the skin.


If you have sensitive skin, physical sunscreens are recommended since chemical filters used in chemical sunscreen can irritate the skin. Physical sunscreens tend to be thicker and thus more difficult to apply. They also tend to leave a white cast on the skin, which is unappealing. Since physical and chemical sunscreen each have their pros and cons, a lot of sunscreens now combine the two UV filters.

Top Five Choices For Sunscreens

All scientific background said and done, here are our top five choices for sunscreens.

Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Dry-Touch Sunblock SPF 30

This chemical sunscreen from Neutrogena makes the cut with it’s great formulation, reasonable pricing and ubiquity. It’s a great every day sunscreen choice if you’re out in the sun since it’s sweatproof and waterproof. Of course, that said, you should still always re-apply sunscreen every 2-3 hours.

Elta MD UV Clear SPF46

Lightweight, well-formulated combination sunscreen that feels light on the skin. Great for sensitive and/or oily skin since it’s oil and paraben-free. It also has 5% Niacinamide, a type of Vitamin B4 that helps lock moisture in the skin.

La Roche Posay – UVIDEA XL SPF 50

Whilst this physical sunscreen is specially formulated to provide protection against UVA rays, it also has the SPF 50. It has a easy to apply texture that quickly penetrates the skin. It may leave a slight white cast – especially if you have darker skin – but a few more pats and it will sink in. Does not dry out the skin.

Shiseido Suncare Extra Smooth Sun Protection lotion SPF 38

If it’s good enough for the Josh Holloway who spent six years in the harsh Hawaiian sun filming Lost, it’s good enough for us. This the go-to sunscreen for all occasions, a day out, a long drive or the beach since it’s easy to apply, smells great and also doesn’t leave a white cast. This is a chemical sunscreen that uses 7.4%  Octinoxate.

Glacier Tropical Sunscreen SPF 40 Creme

We’ve reviewed it’s SPF 20 cousin here before, but because you want at least SPF 30 in your daily sunscreen, the Glacier Tropical Sunscreen SPF 40 makes the cut. This is an all natural, physical sunscreen that uses 20% Zinc Oxide. It’s sweat and water resistant and is our choice for a day at the beach since it really protects our skin from burning. Because this product is quite thick, wash it off with a appropriate cleanser, not just water.

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