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Chemical vs. Physical Sun Protection

Most of us know how important it is to wear SPF every day. Sunscreen is the most effective way to protect your skin from sun damage, early signs of aging and even skin cancer. You may also know to look for a broad-spectrum formulation, meaning it protects from both UVA and UVB rays.

But what is the real difference between sunscreen options and what are the best most effective ingredients to look for? Let's break it down.

What is a physical sunscreen?

A physical sunscreen (sometimes called mineral sunscreen or broad-spectrum) uses minerals such as zinc oxide or titanium dioxide to deflect UV rays away from the skin. These formulations literally sit on the skin and block or scatter UV radiation before it can penetrate the skin.

Pros of Physical Sunscreens:

  • Offers protection from both UVA and UVB rays.
  • Safe for use on babies and during pregnancy.
  • Your skin is protected from the sun as soon as it's applied; no need to wait before heading outdoors.
  • Less likely to irritate sensitive skin and better for those prone to heat-activated skin conditions such as rosacea.
  • Longer shelf life.

Cons of Physical Sunscreens:

  • Can rub off, sweat off and rinse off easily—more frequent application is required.
  • It can appear white or chalky on the skin, especially on darker complexions or in photos.
  • It can feel heavy under makeup or increase perspiration.
  • Can be thicker, which will require more effort to rub in.
  • Needs to be generously applied to be fully effective.

Chemical vs Physical Sun Protection Chart

What is a Chemical Sunscreen?

Chemical sunscreens contain chemical compounds that absorb UV rays. These chemical compounds include formulas like oxybenzone, octinoxate, octisalate and avobenzone. These chemicals change UV rays into heat, which is then released from the skin and scattered.

Pros of Chemical Sunscreens:

  • Most only protect from UVB rays, very few protect from UVA.
  • Thinner and spreads on the skin like a lotion, making it ideal for daily use.
  • Less product is needed to protect the skin.
  • Easier to use with other products like peptides and enzymes, giving you a skincare boost in a single product.

Cons of Chemical Sunscreens:

  • Comes with an increased risk of irritation and stinging, including skin and eyes.
  • Many ingredients are required to create both UVA and UVB protection and higher SPFs, which create additional opportunities for irritation and discomfort.
  • Only becomes effective approximately 20 minutes after application.
  • Associated with an increased chance of redness for rosacea-prone skin types because it changes UV rays into heat which can exacerbate flushing.
  • Can clog pores and increase breakouts on acne prone skin.
  • Some states, including Hawaii and the Florida Keys are beginning to ban chemical sunscreen use as they are not "reef safe" and can damage the oceanic ecosystem.

Regardless of what kind of sunscreen you choose to use, the most important factor is that you use it daily and when you are outdoors, remember to reapply after sweating, swimming or every 2 hours.

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