Which should you use?

You’re probably already familiar with the role sunscreen plays in your skincare routine. Sunscreen helps protect you from overexposure to the sun’s harmful rays, which can contribute to fine lines and wrinkles, signs of premature aging and skin cancer.

In fact, regular use of broad-spectrum sunscreen (UVA and UVB coverage) has been shown to reduce the risk of non-melanoma skin cancer and melanoma, the most aggressive form of skin cancer. , says Nana Duffy, MD, FAAD.

But when choosing a sunscreen, you have a few decisions to make.

First, do you slather on physical or chemical sunscreen? Does it even matter which one you use? Well, it could.

The main difference between these types of sunscreens is how well they block the rays. Physical (mineral) sunscreens sit on the surface of your skin and act like a shield, while chemical sunscreens penetrate your skin and act more like a sponge.

There are pros and cons to both, which we’ll cover below. Sunscreen itself is non-negotiable, of course, but we have all the information you need to choose the best option for your sun protection needs.

Physical sunscreens, more commonly known as mineral sunscreens, work by creating a physical barrier on the skin that protects it from the sun’s rays.

These sunscreens provide broad-spectrum protection by reflecting UV rays away from your skin. They also help prevent UVA-related skin damage, including hyperpigmentation and wrinkles.

Mineral sunscreens can also help block UVA rays from passing through windows, which can cause pigmentation and collagen breakdown. That’s why it’s important to wear sunscreen every day, even if you don’t plan to go outside.

Most mineral sunscreens are formulated with zinc oxide and titanium oxide, two ingredients recognized as safe and effective by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Micronized sunscreens made with zinc or titanium oxide – or those containing very small particles – work much like chemical sunscreens in absorbing UV rays.

“Zinc oxide sunscreens are often recommended for people with skin sensitivities, including acne, and are gentle enough to use on children,” says Elizabeth Hale, MD, board-certified dermatologist and VP. president of skin cancer foundation.

“They also offer broad-spectrum protection (against both UVA and UVB rays) and are widely recommended for those who apply sunscreen daily to their face and neck, as they work to prevent UVA damage throughout of the year, including wrinkles, dark spots, and photoaging,” she says.

All the benefits, of course, but mineral sunscreens have a downside: they can be chalky, difficult to spread and, most glaringly, tend to leave a visible white streak on the skin. If you have a darker complexion, this whitish cast can be particularly apparent.

Tip: Avoid a ghostly face by opting for newer formulas with tinted zinc oxide.

Mineral sunscreens aren’t always as water resistant as chemical options, so you may need to be more diligent when reapplying.

Mineral sunscreens are available in formulas designed for the face and body.

For the face

For the body

Chemical sunscreens do not lie on the skin and do not block the rays. Instead, they contain active ingredients that absorb UV rays before your skin can absorb them. These chemical UV filters include:

  • oxybenzone
  • avobenzone
  • octisalate
  • octocrylene
  • homosalate
  • octinoxate

“In most cases, chemical sunscreens don’t leave a visible film on the skin, which makes them easier to wear on a wider range of skin tones,” says Hale.

She goes on to explain that most of her clients actually prefer chemical sunscreens, simply because they’re easier to apply and wear.

Because they’re designed to be absorbed, chemical sunscreens tend to apply smoothly without feeling sticky or greasy, and they don’t leave telltale white marks.

Are chemical sunscreens safe?

Much of the debate over chemical sunscreens is about the ingredients themselves. The same ingredients that absorb so well can cause health issues.

In 2019, the Proposed FDA rules and regulations intended to update sunscreen requirements.

The agency has yet to find evidence that the majority of sunscreen chemicals can cause harmful side effects. That said, the FDA at prohibits two sunscreen ingredients:

  • aminobenzoic acid (PABA)
  • trolamine salicylate

The FDA continues to work with researchers to assess the safety of active sunscreen ingredients beyond zinc oxide and titanium dioxide.

A study 2020 found that 6 of the 12 active ingredients currently under investigation by the FDA enter the bloodstream after a single application. These ingredients remain detectable in the blood and on the skin for up to 3 weeks – at concentrations exceeding the threshold where the FDA considered waiving further safety testing.

The study authors stress the need for further research, but they also note their findings do not do suggest you should skip the sunscreen.

While some have expressed concern that certain chemicals in sunscreens, particularly oxybenzone and octinoxate, may disrupt certain endocrine functions, recent research did not find conclusive evidence adverse health effects related to sunscreen.

Experts recommend wearing sunscreen daily.

Another potential downside of chemical sunscreens: People with sensitive skin may experience an adverse reaction, such as redness or inflammation. Some ingredients may aggravate skin conditions such as rosacea or melasma.

Check out our guides to the best sunscreens for sensitive or rosacea-prone skin.

Like mineral formulas, chemical sunscreens come in a range of SPFs and options.

For the face

For the body

  • Supergoop Play Daily Lotion SPF 50. This sunscreen is designed to be hydrating, fast-absorbing, and water and sweat resistant for 80 minutes.
  • Bask Broad Spectrum Lotion SPF 30. This cruelty-free vegan sunscreen is reef safe and free of parabens and sulfates. Its lightweight formula is also designed to be transparent, without leaving a white plaster or a sticky feeling.

In the showdown of physical versus chemical sunscreens, there is no clear winner.

“The most effective sunscreen is the one you will use,” says Duffy. She notes that people pay particular attention to the feel and smell of sunscreen, but the most important thing is to wear one regularly.

Still, people with sensitive skin are likely to be better off with physical sunscreen, as it has a lower risk of irritating your skin.

“More Americans are diagnosed with skin cancer than all other types of cancer combined,” says Duffy.

Sun protection, in short, is an everyday essential – even in winter, on cloudy days or on days when you don’t go outside. That said, sunscreen isn’t the only way to protect your skin from the sun:

  • Clothes. Cover your skin with long-sleeved tops and pants, and don’t forget a wide-brimmed hat to protect your face and neck. You can buy UV resistant products or UV clothingbut anything with a tight knit will provide protection.
  • Hourly. Peak sunshine hours are between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Try to spend time outdoors before or after this time if possible, and try to stay in the shade when you can.
  • Avoid UV lamps. Yes, including tanning beds and sunlamps.

When it comes to sunscreen, the choice is yours.

Both physical and chemical sunscreens have pros and cons, and choosing the right sunscreen can involve some trade-offs. Whatever you choose, make sure you don’t skip it. Sunscreen is the best way to reduce your risk of sun-related skin damage.


Jessica Timmons has worked as a freelance writer since 2007, covering everything from pregnancy and parenting to cannabis, chiropractic, stand-up paddleboarding, fitness, martial arts, home decor and more. Her work has appeared in mindbodygreen, Pregnancy & Newborn, Modern Parents Messy Kids and Coffee + Crumbs. Check out what she’s up to now at jessicatimmons.com.

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