Skincare

What’s the Difference Between Physical and Chemical Sunscreen?

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Sun tanned female body

Image: Shutterstock/Marko Marcello

By now, you have your sunscreen routine down to a science. You either slather it on the minute you step outside or only when you’re getting ready for a beach day. But are you using the right one?

Here’s where things get tricky. There are two types of sunscreen that you can use to protect yourself from the harsh summer heat: physical versus chemical. But figuring out which one is better to use comes down to more than just their ingredients. Here’s a complete breakdown of the biggest differences between physical and chemical sunscreen, and which one you should be using.

1. Their ingredients target different areas.
So what are they, exactly? Physical sunscreen essentially lives up to its name. It’s packed with active mineral ingredients such as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, which help block and reflect the UV rays. It basically creates a physical barrier between your skin and the sun.

On the other hand, chemical sunscreens work in the opposite way. They soak up the UV rays that enter your skin and then spit them out as infrared rays. Some chemicals that are found in this type of sunscreen are avobenzone and octinoxate.

2. Physical sunscreen is thicker.
Remember that thick, sticky sunblock that your mom would force you to put on before you left the house? If this sounds like your childhood, chances are you’ve used physical sunscreen before. Because it’s thicker, it’s easier for the formula to rub off on your clothes.

There are actually physical sunscreens that contain micronized zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, and go on smoother than the ones from your past. Nowadays, the thickness of most sunscreens (both physical and chemical) usually correlates to the amount of SPF they contain.

3. Chemical sunscreen takes longer to kick in.
Even though they take longer to rub in and disappear, physical sunscreen formulas work almost immediately. You usually have to wait about 20 minutes before you can safely go outside with chemical sunscreen on. This is because your skin needs time to fully absorb and react to the formula. However, that doesn’t make it any less effective than physical sunscreen.

4. Chemical sunscreen is more convenient, easier to find.
If you walk into any drugstore, you’ll be able to find at least five different brands of chemical sunscreen, whereas finding physical sunscreen takes a little more work.

5. Physical sunscreen works better on sensitive skin.
If you’re like me, your skin breaks out at the tiniest thing. Steer clear of chemical sunscreens with heavier chemical blockers since they’ll irritate your sensitive skin even further. You can also apply physical sunscreen after you put on your moisturizer or other products for extra protection.

6. Physical sunscreen lasts longer, BUT chemical sunscreen is more water resistant.
If used correctly (like standing in the shade whenever you can, wearing a hat), physical sunscreen lasts longer However, you should apply sunscreen throughout the day regardless of what you use. Even though chemical sunscreens have a shorter wear time, they’re better at resisting sweat, and can handle you jumping into the pool.

At the end of the day, finding the right sunscreen for you depends on your preference or what your day is like. There are even sunscreens that contain both physical and chemical formulas that work together to give you a broader range of protection. Whatever you decide, make sure to slather on some sunscreen before you head outside!

Cassandra is a beauty and women's health writer. She spends most of her time treating herself to dinner and movie dates, pretending her life is a Marvel comic and figuring out how to keep her makeup on her face. Not necessarily in that order. She blogs about affordable outfits from her favorite movies and TV shows at Onscreencloset.com.