Do I like wearing sunscreen? No.
Do I wear sunscreen every single day? YES.
What happens if I don’t wear sunscreen every single day?
My skin loses its radiance and smoothness. Pores dilate, fine lines creep in and hyperpigmentation makes it way across my face. Often, it turns red and itchy.
Plus, sun damage is cumulative, so every day without SPF is setting me up for sagging skin, age spots and wrinkles in the future. More importantly, my risk for skin cancer increases — which is absolutely not a welcome thought (five sunburns double your risk!).
So, yes… even though I have yet to find someone who actually enjoys wearing sunscreen, there’s really no alternative.
Which brings us to the next question: Which are the types of sunscreen? Which one should I choose? Physical or chemical? What’s the difference? Which ones work better? And are there any health risks?
For my money, after everything I have read and the experts to whom I have spoken, my go-to is now a physical sunscreen with zinc oxide. Let me explain.
Physical vs chemical sunscreen: What’s the difference?
Broadly speaking, there are two types of sunscreen: Physical and chemical.
Physical sunscreens (also known as mineral sunscreen or sunblock) contain active mineral ingredients — usually zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. These work by creating a physical barrier over the body’s surface, which blocks and scatters UV rays before they penetrate the skin.
Chemical sunscreens, on the other hand, work like a sponge by absorbing UV rays into the skin. Once absorbed, they change the UV rays to heat (a less harmful form of energy), then release them through the skin.
Formulations that contain both mineral and chemical ingredients are termed as chemical sunscreens.
So, is it the same as organic vs inorganic sunscreens?
Sunscreens are one area where the term “organic” is not all that it seems. And some unscrupulous brands play on this to mislead the consumers.
Here, it’s the chemical sunscreens that are referred to as “organic” by science… not because they are “natural” but simply as they contain carbon-carbon bonds. Physical sunscreens, on the other hand, are “inorganic” as they don’t contain any carbon bonds.
Which type of sunscreen is best?
This is not a one-size-fits-all situation. It depends on your skin type, lifestyle and more. So, I am going lay out all the information and you have to decide what works well for YOU!
Chemical sunscreens may absorb into the bloodstream
For many people, this may be the biggest factor while deciding between different types of sunscreen.
Because physical sunscreen sits on top of your skin, it does not enter your bloodstream.
Chemical ones, on the other hand, can have certain ingredients leeching into your bloodstream.
Is this a problem?
While the jury is still out on the health and safety concerns of these ingredients (not all chemicals are bad!), I am wary about letting ones like oxybenzone near my body. Recent studies indicate the we may be absorbing far more of this chemical than was previously thought, which is further underlined by the fact that oxybenzone, which can be a hormone disruptor, has been detected in breast milk.
However, as I said, science has not reached any unanimous conclusions on this one, so this one remains a matter of personal choice. Personally, I prefer to err on the side of caution — especially since hormonal disruptions have been a long term issue for me.
The environmental impact
One thing, however, is unequivocal — and that’s enough to make me pick up a physical sunscreen over a chemical one. Oxybenzone is one of the key factors behind coral bleaching. In fact, it’s so harmful to aquatic life that Hawaii completely banned it in 2018! If my decision between types of sunscreen impacts the environment, guess which way I will be going?
The difference in application
Chemical sunscreens go under your skincare, as they need to sink into the skin. They also take about 20 minutes to work (since the ingredients need to be absorbed), so you can’t slap on and step out of the door immediately.
Physical sunscreen goes on top of your skincare, just under makeup. They start protecting you immediately, so there’s no waiting time required!
Which one would suit my skin?
Both zinc oxide and titanium oxide are non-comedogenic (won’t clog pores), which makes physical sunscreen a good option if you have an acne-prone complexion. On the other hand, chemical sunscreens may have multiple ingredients that can clog the pores, causing skin congestion.
However, physical sunscreens are usually thicker in texture and sit more heavily on the skin, which may not be the best bet for an oily complexion.
Chemical sunscreens have more flexibility in their formulation, which allows them to be lightweight and have the ability to address several skin types — for instance, Supergoop Unseen Sunscreen SPF 40 is a chemical sunscreen that dries down matte and works brilliantly for oily skin, while the Sol de Janeiro Bum Bum Sol Oil Sunscreen SPF 30 is packed with moisturising ingredients like cupuaçu butter, açaí oil and coconut oil, which makes it perfect for dry skin.
Chemical sunscreens can trigger skin reactions
If you’ve ever felt your eyes sting after using a sunscreen, it’s likely due to a chemical filter. Similarly, chemical sunscreens are more likely to trigger skin reactions like contact dermatitis and photosensitivity, since multiple active ingredients have been combined to get broad spectrum coverage.
Another big one: People with rosacea-prone skin have increased chances of a flare-up with chemical sunscreens as they change UV rays into heat, which can exacerbate flushing.
On the other hand, zinc oxide is also an anti-irritant and skin protectant, and is commonly used in sensitive skin care lines. In fact, Neutrogena’s Sheer Zinc Sunscreen Lotion SPF 50 even has the National Eczema Association’s stamp of approval.
Titanium dioxide comes in a close second, though could be a problem for those who are sensitive to mineral makeup.
Which type of sunscreen offers more protection?
Physical sunscreens with zinc oxide are naturally broad spectrum, which means they protect against both UVA and UVB rays. Titanium dioxide protects against UVB rays, but not the full spectrum of UVA rays (one of the reasons why I prefer zinc oxide). However, both these can rub or sweat off faster, thereby requiring more frequent reapplication.
Chemical sunscreens can also be broad spectrum but you will have to specifically check for the rating on the label. You need to look for one that offers both UVA and UVB protection.
Chemical sunscreens are more water resistant
This is one place where chemical sunscreens score big. Physical sunblock tends to sweat and rinse off easily, not making it the best option for a day of swimming or water sports.
Chemical versions, however, work better here as they sink into the skin and won’t come off so easily.
Physical sunscreen can produce a white cast
Ah! The big one. This is the main reason people opt out of using a physical sunscreen: The mineral particles tend to create a white cast on the skin. Plus, zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are thicker and take some more effort to rub in.
Chemical sunscreens, on the other hand, have a lighter texture, are easier to rub into the skin and don’t give off that ghosting effect.
Not necessarily, since physical formulas are constantly improving, becoming more lightweight and less whitening. One of the main advances is in the field of micronisation, which means the particles have been made much smaller to minimize the white cast.
One of my personal favorites is the Drunk Elephant Umbra Sheer Physical Daily Defense Broad Spectrum Sunscreen SPF 30, with 20% zinc oxide, which gives a natural glow. La Roche-Posay Anthelios 50 Mineral Ultra Light Sunscreen Fluid is aother physical sunscreens with a super-light texture and no white cast.
Several formulas have moved even beyond micronisation to nanoparticles (tiny particles of zinc oxide between one and 100 nanometres), which allow the formula to be texturally lighter and more transparent.
As for the debate about the safety of nanotechnology? Several bodies, including the Environmental Working Group, have shown that nanoparticles in sunscreen don’t go beyond the outer dead layers of skin, and do not penetrate the skin or cause damage.
What’s your take on the two types of sunscreen? Which one do you prefer?