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What’s the Difference Between Chemical and Physical Sunscreen?

Two ethnically diverse woman enjoying a day poolside with Urban Skin Rx® Dermshield Mattifying Moisturizer SPF 30

By Alea Petersen

When it comes to choosing a product that protects your skin from the sun, there are many factors you could consider. But like many of us, you may not think about sunscreen until it’s summertime and you’re packing for the beach when you realize you’re running low. You then run to the nearest store to grab a common brand–something with sunglasses, ocean waves, or Hawaiian flowers screen-printed on the bottle. You don’t give it anymore thought than that before checking out and heading outdoors. We’ve all been there.

But not all sunscreens are created equal. Certain ones work better with different occasions and skin types. Our blog exists because we want you to be knowledgeable about your skin and the best products for you. We also want you to feel confident in your skin, which usually begins with being intentional with it.

Protect Your Skin from the Sun

So we’re not here to just peddle our own sunscreen product, although we do have one that we love! Most of all, we want you to make good decisions when you’re exposed to sun. That’s why we’re huge supporters of beach umbrellas and floppy hats too! That’s also why we like to look at the fine details. That begins with an understanding of how different sunscreens work and what they’re made of.

Sunscreen can be divided into 2 main categories: chemical and physical. There are several differences between them. Their terminology gives a hint to one. Chemical sunscreen uses chemical ingredients while physical sunscreen uses natural ingredients. (This does not necessarily mean physical sunscreen is organic.)

Another way to look at chemical and physical sunscreen is by how they enter the skin. Chemical sunscreen allows your skin to absorb UV rays but changes their radiation effect. Then, your skin subsequently releases them but as infrared rays. With physical sunscreen, the ingredients form a protective layer on top of your skin that reflects the UV rays away from the skin. Think: 90’s TV characters sitting on the beach with noses painted white. Not all physical sunscreen appears like that but it is a well-known characteristic.

Here are other differences between chemical and physical sunscreen

Their Ingredients

Common active ingredients in chemical sunscreen are Octylcrylen and Octinoxate. Common ingredients in physical sunscreen are Titanium Dioxide and Zinc. Knowing this can help you determine exactly what you’re getting the next time you buy it.

Their Application

Chemical sunscreen is usually light weight. This makes it easier to hide under makeup. It also makes it easier to comfortably re-apply multiple times a day. Physical sunscreen is not meant to blend into the skin. It’s heavy and sits on top of the skin like a barrier. So reapplying it several times in a day would just feel weird.

Their Effectiveness

Chemical sunscreen usually works within 30 minutes while physical sunscreen works immediately. Chemical sunscreen usually addresses either UVA or UVB rays. But physical sunscreen protects you from both types of UV rays naturally.

So, which kind of sunscreen is better?

This is a trick question. Again, it depends on your needs or the occasion.

But just remember- having both a chemical and a physical sunblock is ideal!

If you want to be able to sit outside in the sun immediately without worrying about getting burned, you’ll want physical sunscreen. If you consciously choose to activate your melanin to achieve a nice glow to your skin tone, you’ll want chemical AND physical sunscreen.

There is a way to get the best of both worlds. Some brands like ourselves contain both physical and chemical ingredients. Our DermShield All Day Sun Protection Mattifying Moisturizer is an example of this. It uses Titanium Dioxide–an element of physical sunscreen–and Octinoxate–an element of chemical sunscreen. Not to mention green tea leaf extract and aloe leaf extract which make it even better! We’d love for you to give it a try.

Whatever you do to take care of your your skin, own it! Even if it means covering your nose with white sunscreen. Wear the beach hat or the ball cap. Surf shirts are awesome too! Choose the best products for you and enjoy yourself at the beach, the pool, or wherever you like to relax.

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