The Difference Between Physical and Chemical Sunscreens

By now, you probably know that wearing sunscreen every day is a non-negotiable for healthy skin. But, did you know sunscreen falls into different categories based on its ingredients? We're breaking down the difference between physical and chemical sunscreens so you can decide which is ultimately right for you.

Physical sunscreen reflects the rays. They contain extremely fine particles of minerals that stay on the skin’s surface, which actually creates a barrier to reflect the sun’s rays.

Ingredients to look for: Titanium Dioxide, Zinc Oxide

Good for: Supersensitive skin

Pros:  “Physical sunscreens protect skin from the sun by deflecting harmful rays,” says New York dermatologist Michael Shapiro, MD. They also have a tendency to last a little longer on the skin.

Cons: In the past, they often left a white cast on skin, but today’s formulas are more transparent. Some users do find they can go on “thicker.”


Chemical 
sunscreen absorbs the rays. They are made of synthetic compounds (manufacturers call them “organic” filters) that absorb ultraviolet radiation.

Ingredients to look for: Avobenzone, Octinoxate, Zinc Oxide, Octocrylene

Good for: Drier skin types

Pro: “Chemically filtered sunscreens offer more coverage against both UVA and UVB rays,” says Dr. Shapiro. 

Con: You typically need to wait at least 20 minutes after applying to receive adequate sun protection.


Insider tip: A lot has been said about the different types of sunscreens, but remember that using a broadspectrum sunscreen that is SPF 30 or higher daily is more important than choosing between the two.