There are so many conflicting opinions and recommendations about sunscreen right now, but the basic science of them is relatively the same. There are two types of sunscreens: physical and chemical. Both have pros and cons and both are great for different concerns and different people.

Physical sunscreen contains titanium dioxide and zinc oxide (both in mineral makeup, too), and block the sun from getting to your skin. Chemical sunscreens rely on a chemical reaction to protect your skin from the sun’s rays. This is what you typically find on the shelves at most drugstores. The difference is reflectors versus absorbers.

We all know we need to wear sunscreen, so which is right for you?

Physical Sunscreen

Physical sunscreens contain active mineral ingredients. They work by creating a layer between your skin and the sun. Think 40s-era movie with the nerdy lifeguard that has zinc oxide on his nose. The zinc oxide is a physical barrier.

This type of sunscreen deflects and scatters damaging UV rays away from the skin. They’re also called mineral or natural sunscreens. It makes sense since titanium dioxide and zinc oxide are two minerals most commonly found in mineral makeup.

Mineral sunscreen protects against both UVA and UVB rays. It also gets to work as soon as you apply it.

Chemical Sunscreen

Chemical sunscreens are contain chemicals. I know, that’s shocking. The chemicals are things like Octylcrylen, Avobenzone and Octinoxate, which have been stirring up the news lately.

This type of sunscreen works differently than the physical kind. Whereas that creates a barrier, this kind creates a chemical reaction. They change UV rays into heat, then release that heat from the skin, usually in the form of infrared rays.

Chemical sunscreens are also easier to find. They’re up and down the drugstore shelves. In fact, you probably have some on right now or at least have some in your beach bag.

Something to note is chemical filters offer more coverage against UVA and UVB rays, but tend to be more irritating on the skin.

Which Sunscreen do I use?

Both types of sunscreen are effective when used correctly. It’s up to you to decide which is better for you, your skin, and your family.

Gone are the days of worrying about the “ghostly” appearance of physical sunscreen as it’s more finely milled now. It may even be incorporated into the makeup you use.

Chemical sunscreens, however, are readily available and come in a wide variety of formulas. These tend to be thinner and spread more easily on the skin. Because of that, they’re great for daily use and reduce the risk of you missing a spot.


Bottom line: pick the kind that you will use—and you will use a lot of. It doesn’t really matter the SPF number so much as how often you apply it to create that barrier, either physical or chemical, between your skin and the sun.

The Great Sunscreen Debate: Physical or Chemical

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