The difference between chemical and physical sunscreen, and which you should be using

The arrival of summer in Southern California means one thing is for sure… sun, sun, and more sun. While the native California girl in me loves getting a healthy dose of Vitamin D from the outdoors, I’ve always made sure to protect my skin before heading out into those intense summer rays, and this summer will be no exception. Applying daily SPF is a crucial part of preventing premature wrinkles, sunburns, and potentially severe sun damage, and I’m starting to take note of exactly what ingredients are in the products that I put on my skin. The downside? With so many sunscreen variations to choose from, it can be a real guessing game trying to figure out exactly which product will protect your skin the best—or if it’s even doing the job at all.

Just like any skincare product on the market, when it comes to sunscreen there are dozens of different brands, SPF ratings, ingredients, and formulas that claim to protect your skin from harmful UV rays. But don’t give up just yet! Choosing a sunscreen can be simpler than you think, and you can breathe a sigh of relief when I say that all sunscreens fall under two categories that can make a world of a difference in your decision: chemical sunscreens and physical sunscreens. If you don’t know the difference between the two, don’t worry, I’ve broken it down to the basics below. Keep reading to learn all about chemical vs. physical sunscreens, and which one will best keep your skin sun damage free this summer…

What are chemical sunscreens?

Chemical sunscreens contain ingredients such as octinoxate, avobenzone, and the like, which are organic compounds that work by creating a chemical reaction under the skin. (Some also contain the ingredient oxybenzone, but this should be avoided if possible, as it can have adverse effects on the body—instead, look for organic, eco-friendly sunscreens without this ingredient.) Essentially, these chemical sunscreens work by absorbing UV rays into the skin, changing them to heat, then releasing them from the skin. It can be a little unsettling to think of those rays going directly into your skin before they are released, but there are still pros to opting for a chemical sunscreen…

For instance, chemical sunscreens are generally very lightweight and blend-able, which means these can be reapplied throughout the day in a cinch, and will most likely layer seamlessly under makeup for daily wear. However, some skin types may be too sensitive for the ingredients in chemical sunscreens, which means irritation isn’t out of the question. Plus, these types of sunscreen can take anywhere up to 30 minutes to start working and usually only protect against either UVA or UVB rays, but not both. To sum it up, if you currently have damage-free skin and aren’t planning on jumping right into direct sunlight after applying, then chemical sunscreens are perfect for layering with other skincare products and will offer a decent amount of protection for daily use.

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What are physical sunscreens?

If you’ve ever seen an image of the quintessential lifeguard with white sunblock slathered over his nose, then you already have a pretty good understanding of what a physical sunscreen is. This “lifeguard look”—more commonly seen a few decades ago—is the result of an ingredient called zinc oxide. If you’re browsing the shelves for a physical sunscreen, then zinc oxide or titanium dioxide (or both) will be two of the first ingredients listed on the product packaging. In basic terms, these ingredients are active minerals that sit on the surface of the skin and block incoming UV rays, then scatter them. Pretty simple, right?

The good news about physical sunscreens, is that these products work immediately after applied, are good for sensitive skin, and protect against both UVA and UVB rays naturally. On the other hand, the zinc oxide and titanium dioxide in physical sunscreens have a white-ish tint, and tend to be heavier and more apparent on the skin, which means they might be better for beach days and not-so-great for layering with makeup. Bonus tip: If you already have some previous sun damage, opt for a physical sunscreen, as it will help your skin avoid overheating internally—which is a risk of using chemical sunscreens, and can make discoloration worse.

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Which to choose?

In my opinion, a choice of sunscreen greatly depends on the activity you intend to participate in after applying your SPF. If you’re planning on staying in most of the day, with short bouts of time in the sun (i.e. running errands or going to work) then a chemical sunscreen will do just fine, and will be invisible under your makeup. If you’re heading out for a day at the beach or spending time in intense direct sunlight, then regularly reapplying a physical sunscreen is your best bet. Better yet, keep an eye out for a sunscreen that has the best of both worlds (physical and chemical ingredients) so you can have the assurance that you’re protecting your skin both inside and out, no matter what kind of activity you’re doing. It may take some trial and error to find what works best for your skin type, but no matter what, just make sure you’re applying some sort of SPF to keep those UV rays at bay. One last tip? Never underestimate the sun-blocking power of a summer sunhat!

What’s your take on chemical vs. physical sunscreens? Which do you prefer?

Share your skin-saving tricks with me in the comments below…

XO Lauren

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Photos: LaurenConrad.com
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