Chemical vs Physical Sunscreen: The Difference

Chemical vs Physical Sunscreen: The Difference

Sunscreen Face-Off

Something that not a lot of people know, not all sunscreens are made the same! Yes, of course, there is the difference levels of SPF protection but we are talking about ingredients here. The topic has generated a lot of talk recently. Not only about the safety to you, but for the safety of our ocean.

Let’s break down the difference.

Chemical sunscreen:

Chemical sunscreens use a combination of two to six of these active ingredients: oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate, and octinoxate. These are used in sunscreens because they all absorb the suns harmful rays and dissipate the heat back off the skin.

UV Protection:       

The SPF number indicates protection only from UVB rays, the ones that cause sunburns and non-melanoma skin cancers. UVA rays are actually more threatening. Therefore, a really high SPF number is not technically better, plus the higher concentration of chemicals might be something you want to avoid. A broad-spectrum sunscreen is always recommended.

Ingredient Safety:

As stated, chemical sunscreen can have a combination of two to six active ingredients. If you do opt for a chemical sunscreen, we would recommend to avoid those with oxybenzone. Oxybenzone is assigned an 8 out of 10 hazard score by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) because of skin penetration, hormone disruption, and allergy problems.


Typically, chemical sunscreens rub into the skin easily and quickly, and they dry sheer.

Physical Sunscreen:

Physical sunscreens use active mineral ingredients, such as zinc oxide and titanium oxide. These ingredients reflect the suns rays like a mirror to protect your skin.

UV Protection:

Physical sunscreen takes the prize in the sense of UV ray protection. Zinc oxide, in particular, delivers the best UVA and UVB protection (that means broad-spectrum coverage) according to the EWG. In addition, since the minerals reflect (not absorb like chemical) they don’t break down as readily and offer longer protection.

Ingredient Safety:     

Overall, natural ingredients used in physical sunscreens are more gentle than chemicals. However, there are still a few things to consider. EWG recommends to avoid titanium dioxide in a powder or spray form due to its toxicity when inhaled.


Physical sunscreens use nanoparticles to make it easier to rub in. Unfortunately, they still simply don’t rub into the skin as well, often leaving a white film. Revision Skincare just came out with a mineral face sunscreen called, Intellishade TruPhysical. However, you’ll have to keep searching for a full body one.

Another thing to consider:

Another side of chemical and physicall sunscreens to consider is the effect to our oceans. The ingredients oxybenzone and octinoxate (both in chemical sunscreens) have been found to cause major damage to coral reefs. So much so, that Hawaii just passed a bill on May 2nd 2018 to ban the sale of sunscreen made with these harmful ingredients. Coral reefs are located across the globe, so this is a simple way to help minimize the damage in your own way.

For More Information:

For more information about sunscreen contact us at ZONA Med Spa. Or book a complimentary consultation online by clicking here.

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