Physical vs Chemical Sunscreen: What you should know

Physical vs Chemical Sunscreen: What you should know

Did you know there are two types of sunscreens–physical sunblocks and chemical sunscreens? 

Each type uses a different mechanism for filtering UV rays and protecting the skin from damage. Physical sunscreens reflect UV rays away from the skin while chemical sunscreens absorb the UV rays, convert them into heat, and then release them from your body. Mineral sunscreens are physical sunblocks that use active ingredients—zinc oxide and titanium dioxide.


Physical Sunblock: Pros

Physical sunblock is thicker and more moisturizing than chemical sunscreen. It is ideal for people with sensitive skin as the thick formula sits on the surface of the skin, allowing for better coverage and protection. They are less irritating and a better fit for those with sensitive skin.

Physical Sunblock: Cons

Since sunblock is thicker, it can leave a white residue on the skin and is more difficult to rub in. It will also wash off when you swim or sweat excessively, so you will need to reapply. Also, those with oily, or acne-prone skin might find physical sunblocks too thick and clogging. 

 Chemical Sunscreen: Pros

Chemical sunscreen is lighter in consistency, so it absorbs more quickly and blends better compared to physical sunblocks. Sunscreen is also the best option when you are swimming or sweating because it can be water-resistant. Chemical sunscreen is also more protective of damaging UVA radiation compared to mineral actives.

Chemical Sunscreen: Cons

Some chemical filters can cause allergic reactions, and irritation for sensitive skin. The active ingredients in chemical sunscreen include avobenzone, octinoxate, and oxybenzone. New FDA testing shows that some of these active ingredients are absorbed into the bloodstream and may linger in the body for days or even weeks. Research also suggests that these chemicals may cause free radical damage from long-term use and may also be linked to other detrimental health effects.

Beware: oxybenzone

The FDA conducted a study on six active ingredients in chemical sunscreen: avobenzone, oxybenzone, octocrylene, homosalate, octisalate, and octinoxate. They discovered that just a single application of chemical sunscreen increases the blood levels of these active ingredients beyond the FDA’s threshold for determining safe use. Some of these ingredients can disrupt hormones which may lead to fertility problems, and perhaps cancer. 

“It’s a little bit scary because we just don’t know what the biological effect of sunscreen in your blood is,” says Alok Vij, MD, a dermatologist at Cleveland Clinic in Ohio.

Studies have shown that oxybenzone may have detrimental effects on skin dermis, sperm function, breast development, and infant birth weight.

Research is still inconclusive, so for the time being, it’s a good idea to read through the ingredients list on your sunscreen and perhaps consider sticking to mineral sunblocks while the FDA continues to review the safety of these six active ingredients.


Written by: Portchia Sedlezky

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