Chemical Versus Physical (or Mineral) Sunscreen — ODE Dermatology

Chemical Versus Physical (or Mineral) Sunscreen

An Explainer

Chemical Versus Physical (or Mineral) Sunscreen

As seen on Broadsheet

By Kate Lancaster •

Sunscreen has to be up there with one of the most potent sensory triggers of long summer days; slathered across your face and limbs, the scent of coconut or zinc drifting through the air. But nostalgia aside, sunscreen isn’t seasonal.

SPF is a daily essential for guarding your skin against wrinkles, fine lines, pigmentation and, most importantly, skin cancer.

Sunscreen is typically categorised as either chemical or physical (or mineral), with much debate among experts and enthusiasts as to which is “better”.

The subject gets a little confusing, so we spoke to some dermatologists to clarify the contrasts between the two.

What’s the difference between chemical and physical sunscreen?

Chemical sunscreen tends to be lightweight, easily massaged into the skin and is arguably the most common form of SPF on the market.

Dr Shyamalar Gunatheesan, a dermatologist and the founder of Melbourne’s ODE Dermatology, says chemical sunscreens are “composed of organic filters … that absorb the UV radiation and then disperse the energy as a release of heat (from the body)”.

Common ingredients in chemical sun creams include avobenzone (which absorbs harmful UVA rays, octinoxate (which absorbs harmful UVB rays) and octocrylene (which absorbs both UVA and UVB rays).

Meanwhile, physical sunscreen tends to be thicker in texture, although Dr Gunatheesan notes that their texture has vastly improved in recent years.

Physical sunscreens as those “made out of inert, inorganic filters which have the ability to reflect and scatter UV rays, thereby preventing the absorption of UV light into the skin,” she says. Examples of physical sunscreens include zinc oxide and titanium dioxide.

“Chemical sunscreens need at least 15 minutes of application time to penetrate the stratum corneum (outer layer of skin or epidermis) before exposure to the UVB and UVA,” says Dr Gunatheesan.

“Physical sunscreens sit on the skin surface, hence do not need to penetrate the skin for efficacy.”

Is physical sunscreen a “natural” SPF option? “People with sensitive skin, eczema, or rosacea or those prone to hyperpigmentation, such as melasma, will benefit from a physical sunscreen,” says Dr Gunatheesan. “Those with acne-prone skin might prefer a lightweight chemical sunscreen.”

How do I know which sunscreen formula is right for me?

1. Opt for a sunscreen with the highest possible SPF

At least SPF30+, but preferably SPF50+ in a texture that works with your skincare or makeup, at a price point that encourages liberal use.

This means you will actually apply enough of it and reapply it during the day.

2. Experiment with a few different formulations

There are many cosmetically elegant and wearable high-SPF sunscreens now available, at accessible price points. Experiment with a few different formulations until you find the right one for your skin type.

Sunscreens with chemical filters still tend to be more cosmetically elegant and ‘wearable’ than mineral, although these formulations are also improving.

3. Look for a braod-spectrum sunscreen that provides maximum protection

That is, a formula that protects against both UVA and UVB radiation – you’ll see the UVA symbol in a circle on the packaging.

4. Make sure your sunscreen actually does what it says it does

In Australia, this means it is registered by our Therapeutic Goods Association (TGA) on the basis of accurate testing data.

These sunscreens will have an ‘AUST L’ number printed on the packaging.

5. a simple tip for those with oily skin

To reduce greasiness, rather than layering sunscreen over moisturiser, you can use sunscreen alone as your daily moisturiser, as most sunscreens are formulated in an emollient base.

If your skin feels too dry doing this, try a hydrating serum underneath.


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