Sunscreen: Chemical vs. Physical

By Kaitlyn, MedSpa Nurse Practitioner

There are two types of sunscreen: chemical and physical. What are the actual differences between the two? Is one better than the other? Which should you be using? I’m going to walk you through all of these answers below. I hope it makes the ever-growing list of sunscreens just a little bit more manageable for you.

Don’t Trust the “Popular” Brands

When you’re walking down the sunscreen aisle at your local drugstore, it can be a little overwhelming. With so many options, it’s hard to decipher which products you should be using and which products you need to stay away from. 

Oftentimes, we’re looking for deals when we’re shopping, so we opt for the cheaper products. I hate to be the one to say it, but the more expensive sunscreens are typically going to be the better ones for your skin.

When we look at popular brands like Coppertone or Banana Boat, we find these sunscreens are loaded with chemical ingredients. Whereas some of the more expensive, quality brands are going to be physical sunscreens.

So let’s get into what the difference is between the two types of sunscreen, starting with chemical.

Chemical Sunscreen

Chemical ingredients in sunscreens allow UV rays to penetrate the skin. Your skin then releases those UV rays off of your skin in the form of heat. Heat is bad for the skin, especially when skin already has excess pigment. 

Who should avoid chemical sunscreens? Anyone that struggles with:

Chemical-based sunscreens will cause the pigment to flare up, worsening any of the above conditions. Check out our blog on fighting rosacea and redness here (spoiler: it mentions avoiding chemical sunscreens).

Commonly-found chemicals you might see are Octinoxate and Oxybenzone. Simply put, these chemicals will cause damage to your skin. So when you’re out looking for sunscreen, we highly suggest you look for physical sunscreens.

Physical Sunscreen

Physical sunscreens are also referred to as “mineral” sunscreens. So when looking for sunscreen, know that these two are exactly the same thing. Also, if a product is physical or mineral, it should say “physical” or “mineral” on the label. If it doesn’t say either of these things, then it’s a chemical sunscreen.

sunscreenThese sunscreens create a physical blockade on your skin so UV rays cannot penetrate your skin like they would when using a chemical sunscreen. With physical or mineral sunscreens, the UV rays will just bounce right off of your face. This prevents the addition of heat into the skin (which again, chemical sunscreens induce more heat which is not good for your skin).

Why We Wear Sunscreen: Free Radicals

We apply sunscreen to protect our skin from “free radicals”. Free radicals come in the form of UV rays, pollution, and even cigarette smoke. Think of two older women- one who has smoked her whole entire life and the other who has not. The who has smoked is going to have a lot more wrinkles and damage on her skin.

This is exactly what free radicals do- they cause damage to our skin in the form of lines and wrinkles, brown spots, and little red veins on our faces. Free radicals are what turn apples brown when you cut them open and leave them out too long. 

If you think about how quickly an apple turns brown, imagine what the free radicals are doing to our skin. Physical and mineral sunscreens provide some of the best protection against free radicals. Vitamin C products also help to protect against free radicals, which you can read about in one of our previous blogs here.

There are recent studies that have shown that some of our cheaper sunscreens like Coppertone and Banana Boat (even those for babies) contain harmful chemical ingredients that trigger the formation of free radicals. You’re essentially applying sunscreen to your face thinking that you’re protecting it, when you’re actually causing it more harm.

Go For the More Expensive, Quality Sunscreens

Clients will tell me when they come in for consultations that they don’t use sunscreen because they heard that it’s bad for their skin. If you’re using low-quality sunscreens, then yes, it’s bad for your skin. These cheaper, chemical sunscreens can cause harm to your skin.sunscreen

When you’re searching for sunscreen, put the few extra dollars in and purchase a higher quality sunscreen. A majority of the “best” sunscreens in the United States wouldn’t even go on the market in Europe because their standards for sunscreens are so much higher than ours. Scary, right?

So when our shopping, look for those physical and mineral products. A few really good brands that carry high-quality sunscreens are EltaMd and COOLA. Both of these brands can be found online (you can actually purchase EltaMD over in our MedSpa). 

As far as drug store products, Neutrogena does make a zinc oxide physical sunscreen which I do recommend. It’s going to be one of the cheapest ones you’re going to find out there. 

If you’re unsure what next steps to take in your skincare journey, sunscreen included, schedule a free skincare consultation with us! We’d love to sit down, discuss your concerns, and see how we might be able to help. Give us a call at (513)-791-8474 to schedule yours today.

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