What are Chemical Sunscreens and Physical Sunscreens?

by Paris B on · 26 comments

in Discussions,Sunscreen

Monstro left a question in a previous comment asking what the difference was between Chemical Sunscreens and Physical Sunscreens.

Without going into the virtues of either form of sunscreens, a simple explanation of the 2 different types of sunscreens in the market is as follows.

Chemical Sunscreens

Chemical Sunscreens are so called because they contain synthetic chemicals which absorb UV rays thereby absorbing radiation. These chemicals work by absorbing UVA or UVB but usually also contain ingredients to block UVA rays. According to the American Melanoma Foundation:-

Chemical sunscreens contain special ingredients that act as filters and reduce ultraviolet radiation penetration to the skin. These sunscreens often are colorless and maintain a thin visible film on the skin. These sunscreens usually contain UVB absorbing chemicals and more recently contain UVA absorbers as well.

Examples of chemical sunscreens are La-Roche-Posay Anthelios XL 50+, Lancome UV Expert, L’oreal UV Perfect (Mexoryl) and the new Eucerin White Solution (Tinosorb S). Also any sunscreen containing Avobenzone, Oxybenzone or Octorylene are chemical sunscreens.

Physical Sunscreens

Physical Sunscreens are also known as sunblocks. What these creams do is contain ingredients like titanium oxide or zinc oxide which physically block and scatter the sun rays. The American Melanoma Foundation states:-

Physical Sunscreens, most often referred to as sunblocks, are products containing ingredients such a titanium dioxide and zinc oxide which physically block ultraviolet radiation (UVR). Sunblocks provide broad protection against both UVB and UVA light.

Physical sunscreens, because they form a layer on the skin, tend to leave a whitish cast on the skin and you really need to clean them off properly because it sticks to the skin so many people don’t quite like using them for this reason. (Note: Using Cleansing Oils and the double cleansing method help remove stubborn sunscreen) Also, a point to note that if you are going to be taking photographs, you should avoid products containing Titanium Oxide or Zinc Oxide because your face will look unnaturally white as the flash or light will reflect off these blockers.

Which type of sunscreen is better – Chemical or Physical?

This is an ongoing debate.

On the one hand, research shows that Chemical sunscreens generate free radicals which can cause skin aging. On the other hand, chemical sunscreens like Mexoryl are photostable which means they do not degenerate under sunlight and you need not reapply throughout the day. Texture wise chemical sunscreens tend to feel lighter on the skin. The Australia Cancer Council has an article on this too.

As for physical sunscreens, because of aesthetics (the white cast and thickness of formula) people may not be applying enough to offer the full protection that physical sunscreens can offer. The recommended amount to apply is 1 tablespoon of sunscreen. If you’ve tried to abide by that rule, you’d know its a LOT of sunscreen. Otherwise, physical sunscreens containing zinc oxide seem to be trumping all other types of sunscreens in offering full UVA and UVA broad spectrum sun protection.

However, I do notice that some sunscreens are now combining both chemical and physical sunblocking properties. These sunscreens have chemical filters but also contain titanium or zinc oxide. These I believe may offer better sun protection and might make better sunscreens that those that are just purely chemical or purely physical. But this is my untrained view only.

For the face, I am presently using chemical based sunscreens in the form of L’oreal UV Perfect and more recently, Eucerin White Solution. The Eucerin White Solution has Tinosorb S as its primary ingredient, but I also noticed that in the ingredient list is listed Titanium Oxide which is a physical blocker. I wonder if this might be why I’m finding it so much better for me. I don’t get the warm feeling on the face as I get with other sunscreens after being out in the sun a lot.

For the body I’m using the Australian Cancer Council Everyday sunscreen, which I find very good. Perusing the ingredient list, I see that it looks like a chemical based sunscreen. However, the Ultra version has similar ingredients with added Zinc Oxide, so the next time I get a bottle I might try that one.

Let me just say that I’m not a sunscreen nor skincare expert. Whatever information I have here is based on the reading I have done on and offline. A blogger who has much more comprehensive information on sunscreens is Sesame of VivaWoman so do head on over to her site to read more on this subject of sunscreens.

Whichever you choose, wear sunscreen daily

I’m still learning more about sunscreens everyday but whichever one you choose to go for, whether chemical or physical, I am a strong advocate of using sunscreens daily to prevent skin damage and premature aging. Truly, saying that sunscreens break you out or that it makes you oily is not an excuse not to apply sunscreens. There are many forms of sunscreens in the market that you can try, some of which are in an oil free formula or spray on formula which are less oily. The key is to find a formula that works for you from the many in the market. Even if you aren’t concerned about skin aging, skin cancer or the health of your skin is something sunscreen can help with too.

With Australia having one of the highest incidences of skin cancer in the world I tend to trust their research and information more than others and I tend to trust their sunscreens better too because of their stringent controls. I’d adopt the call by the Australia Cancer Council in helping to prevent skin cancer:-

SLIP on sun protective clothing and sunglasses when going out

SLOP on the sunscreen – preferably a broad spectrum one

SLAP on a hat

I have been using sunscreens and practicing (some) of the SLIP SLOP SLAP practices from the time I was a kid. My mom is something of a radical for the time and used to slather us with sunscreen every day especially during our swimming lessons and nag us into staying out of the sun at noon and to wear a hat or carry an umbrella when we go out.

Until today, the distinctive smell of Coppertone brings back memories of childhood and swimming lessons! I used to hate it, but I do have her to thank now for people not being able to guess my true age; and she truly doesn’t look her age too! :)

Do you use Sunscreen daily? What’s the sunscreen you are using?

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[ 10 comments… read them below or join the discussion ]

Nikki July 23, 2008 at 11:42 am

I honestly didn’t even know there’s differences between sunscreens! thanks for this very informative post parisb, now you will make me wanna go home and check on the sunscreen ingredients!


Monstro July 23, 2008 at 11:43 am

Excellent post! Thanks for answering my question!
I am now using the Eucerin one you recommended, and so far it’s working out well for me. I find that it’s not as shiny as most others, and the white cast is minimal. I am also able to skip moisturizer as it seems to be good enough.

Have another question though: If I were to put moisturizer, do I put it on before or after sunscreen?
I’ve heard different things about moisturizers needing to react to the skin, or that some sunscreens will change in effectiveness if it comes into contact with a moisturizer. Totally confused about this bit.


Affy July 23, 2008 at 11:48 am

hi Paris, i’m one of your fan. your blog have help lots of women out there… especially me 😀

i’m actually allergic to spf product and i don’t know which ingredient that cause it. if your mom always nag u, my father did the same too. he would urges me to wear sunblocks everytime we went to the beach. so i used it (on my face n body), and at the end of the day, mysteriously my face starts to feel extremely itchy (note: just the face). at that time i tot i got major sunburn. the swollen n the itchiness gone after a week. this i have experienced it with sunplay spf 30 n nivea spf 20. sure at that time i don’t know it was because of spf

another experience, i use lip balm with spf (banana boat with spf), my lips starts to puff up, dry and crusty. then, i started to realize it.

after reading ur reviews on eucerin, i’m sooo tempted to try one, becoz the dark spot on my cheeks are really sore to the eyes, but i don’t dare to risk of having the same experience again. i know the product are meant for sensitive skin n dermatologist tested but so does clinique. and i did get the same effect under my eyes after using its Clinique Derma White Eye Moisture SPF 15 sample :(

currently i’m not using any sun protecteor except for using mineral makeup (becoz they claimed it can block the sun naturally n no allergy so far), a pair of arm glove and an umbrella. all of my makeups are strictly without spf ingredient. sigh… some ppl are really lucky their skin is not sensitive :)

so paris, any comment? would appreciate it a lot :) btw, is there any website that i can get these product ingredients so i can figure out which ingredient is the real culprit?

thanks for your time :)


prettybeautiful July 24, 2008 at 10:08 am

wow this is really an eye-opener post. thanks PB! i am now wearing clinique Super City Block, and i really love it, its oil-free formula did not give me any break outs at all. and, it is affordable 😀


Natallie July 24, 2008 at 12:06 pm

Hi Paris, your mom is right about sun protection! My teacher who is a Specialist in Dermatology (I’m Med student) used to tell us that there are two main culprits which damage our skin and cause aging–soap and sun! He kept remind us to use less soap (chemical products) and practise sun protection :) Your post is informative, thanks! I come across a new product from Neutrogena – Ultra Sheer Dry Touch Sunblock SPF 30, claimed lightweight,non greasy sunscreen for face and body. Though its name is Sunblock, it doesn’t contain Titanium oxide, however, its formula featuring Helioplex™ technology – combination of two FDA approved sunscreens, Avobenzone and Oxybenzone(as you mentioned!). So,physical or chemical? I don’t think is important unless for persons who are sensitive to any one of them, I guess. Thx again, now I know how to read and choose the Formulas.. :p


ParisB July 24, 2008 at 12:49 pm

Nikki: I’m just learning myself. There’s too much chemical information to digest in one go!

Monstro: This is a tricky question. For chemical sunscreens, it is recommended that it goes on first onto the skin because the chemicals bind with the skin. With physical, it goes on last because its job is to reflect the UV rays. Personally, I put it on last but that is because I never got the hang of putting sunscreen first… until now that I use the Eucerin and skip day moisturiser altogether.

Affy: Thank you for your comment. I have emailed you. The short answer may be for you to try purely physical sunscreens. There aren’t many around in Malaysia but I’ll try to find some.

prettybeautiful: I suppose if the formula works for you, its all good!

Natallie: I’ve seen the Neutrogena in the pharmacies. Oxybenzone and Avobenzone is chemical. I personally don’t use any sunscreens with either of the 2 chemicals because of previous reports that they are not photostable i.e. they break down under the sun rays. That said, the formula may have been reinforced but my skin doesn’t take well to either of the 2 chemicals too which I found out a while ago.


Jaimie July 24, 2008 at 9:26 pm

THANKS for posting. I never knew there even was such as thing as physical and chemical sun screens.

xoxo Jaimie
Don’t forget to check out my new contest!


ParisB July 25, 2008 at 9:43 am

Jaimie: Welcome and I’m glad the information was useful.


eternalvoyageur August 4, 2008 at 7:12 pm

Actually the amount of sunscreen to be used has been re-calculated: it is 1-1,25 ml for just the face, or 1,5 – 1,8 ml for the face and neck.
In the old calculations the fact that we have hair on our heads had been ignored.

A good place to check how much UVA and UVB protection a sunscreen gives and whether the ingredients are safe or harmful is http://www.cosmeticdatabase.com

Also, chemical sunscreen penetrate the skin and enter the blood stream (and may mimic hormones), while physical sunscreens do not.
Certain ingredients in chemical sunscreens react with ingredients in make-up.
If sunscreen contains Parsol 1789 (Avobenzone, Buthyl Methoxydibenzoylmethane,
octyl methoxycinnamate (popular UVB filter in foundations),
zinc oxide
titanium dioxide
some CI colorants

So, I’d recommend physical sunscreen, especially on kids. If you want to go for chemical, research first whether it is photostable. For physical sunscreen, avoid those with nano particles.

One last thing, the technique of application is extremely important. Pat the sunscreen in to for a layer, because rubbing it in just smears it away.

Hope this is useful !


Chuchi August 10, 2012 at 8:58 pm

I use Missha- All Around Safe Block (Waterproof Sun Milk) SPF 50 PA++ and I quite like it. I first tried this product through a sample and I loved it. It’s lightweight, not too heavy and moderately runny–not gel-like but close to that; it’s still cream, after all. And the scent is lovely, mild.


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