Physical VS Chemical Sunscreens: What’s the Difference?

You probably already know that sunscreen is one of the most popular products in the skincare market. It has been proven multiple times that sunscreen has positive effects of protecting our skin from sunburns, early aging, fine wrinkles, hyper-pigmentation, and so much more.

But some people might not know that there are two main types of sunscreen: chemical and physical (aka mineral) sunscreens. What is the difference though? Today I’ll talk about:

What is Sunscreen?

In 1938, a Swiss chemistry student, Franz Greiter, suffered from a sunburn. That was the mark of his journey to create sunscreen. Today, sunscreen is so popular that it is the face of the skincare industry. Sunscreen helps prevent and care for multiple skin types and conditions. It prevents sun burn, worsening of acne scars, early signs of aging, skin cancers, and more.

Because of its popularity, there are a TON of sunscreens in the market to choose from. When looking for sunscreens, most people usually look at the SPF. The higher the SPF, the more protection it provides right?

Well, actually Dr. Davin Lim, Brisbane Dermatologist in Australia, explained that SPF does not measure how much protection the sunscreen provides against UV rays, but simply how long the sunscreen will last before wearing off. It is also mainly a marketing ploy. He says that doubling the SPF (for example from 30 to 60), the percent of UV protection only goes from 97% to 98%.

SPF of 30 is usually good enough. Any SPF higher than 30 is close to the same protection percentage. To get the most benefit from sunscreen, it is recommended you apply about 5 grams (a teaspoon) of sunscreen over you face, ears, and neck 15 minutes before sun exposure.

Here is a picture he shared on his YouTube video showing the UVB protection as you increase SPF. You can see it starts to plateau at 30.

Also, there are two main types of sunscreen to choose from:

  1. Chemical sunscreens, which sink into your skin and acts like a sponge by absorbing UVA/B rays.
  2. Physical (mineral) sunscreens, which sit on top of your skin and act as a shield or wall against the UVA/B rays.

As for UV rays, there are multiple kinds of UV rays as well. There are UVA rays and UVB rays.

UVA rays penetrate deep into your skin and is what causes early aging, wrinkles, hyper-pigmentation, and deeper damage. Remember A for aging.

UVB rays don’t go as deep as UVA, and damage your surface (epithelial) cells. This causes sunburns. Remember B for Burning.

UVA and B rays are not visible! It doesn’t need to be sunny for there to still be exposure to UV rays, so you should wear sunscreen year round

Physical (Mineral) Sunscreens

Physical sunscreens are formulated to sit on top of your skin and act like a barrier against UV rays. They’re generally formulated with titanium and zinc oxide. Both of these are researched and approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)Trusted Source.

Physical sunscreens have may pros and cons which I’ve listed below:

Said to be better for those with sensitive skin, dermatitis, rosea, eczema, etc. 

Usually has a higher protection rate against UVA rays than Physical sunscreens

Not many chemicals besides preservatives
May be more expensive than most chemical sunscreens

Debate about carcinogenic nanoparticles

Consistency can be more “chalky, difficult to spread” and leave a white cast
UVA Rays and Nanoparticles explained below

While titanium and zinc oxide have both been proven to be safe and effective, there have been debates about whether or not they cause cancer. Some believe that their nanoparticles (very small particles) could penetrate the skin and remain in the blood stream of mineral sunscreen users. However, there hasn’t been much provided research that these ingredients are carcinogenic. But I did find that when the nanoparticles are too small, it reduces the sunscreen’s ability to block UV rays, thus making the product ineffective. This could restrict formulations from having particles too small in the first place.

Chemical Sunscreens

Chemical sunscreens are more like sponges. They sink into your skin and then absorb UV rays.

Active ingredients in chemical sunscreen usually include oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate, octinoxate (big words, I know right)

Here are some pros and cons of chemical sunscreens:

Pros Cons
Usually cheaper than most physical sunscreens

General UV protection is the same as physical

Does not generally leave a white cast or sticky feeling on skin as it is absorbed into skin
More likely to cause irritation for those with sensitive skin or skin conditions

Some ingredients may not be reef friendly

Some concerns about health risks

Some have expressed concerns again oxybenzone and octinoxate and claimed that it could cause endocrine problems. Though, a systematic review published by the NIH found no conclusive answer that these ingredients truly were harmful or caused any adverse health problems.

However, oxybenzone, octocrylene, and octinoxate have been found harmful against something else: coral reefs. These ingredients are usually found in spray sunscreens. Later in this blog post I have recommended two great sunscreens that are reef safe.

Sunscreen Recommendations

I personally use chemical sunscreens because I like the end look on my skin more. However choose whichever will work best for you!

Chemical Sunscreens: (I use both of these)

  1. Sun Bum- Face 50

$$ || 12.99 on Ulta

Ethics ||  Reef Friendly, Vegan, Cruelty Free, Gluten Free

Review/Description || Water resistant for 80 minutes, Lightweight and Oil Free, No fragrance

I personally use this one… I have oily, acne prone, and sensitive skin

2. Tula Protect + Glow Daily Sunscreen Gel SPF 50

$$ || 36.00 on Ulta

Ethics || Reef Friendly, Vegan, Cruelty Free

Review/Description || Probiotic Extracts: help improve skin smoothness & strengthen the skin barrier, Pineapple & Papaya: help promote even skin tone, Wild Butterfly Ginger Root: helps protect skin against the damaging effects of blue light & pollution, Does not contain live cultures

I personally use this one… I have oily, acne prone, and sensitive skin

Physical Sunscreens: (recommended by

1. Coola Full Spectrum 360° Mineral Sun Silk Moisturizer SPF 30

$$ || 42.00 on Ulta

Ethics || Organic, Vegan, Gluten Free, Cruelty Free, Hawaii Reef Compliant

Description || 70%+ certified organic ingredients, Helps mitigate the effects of blue light, pollutants, and other skin stressors, Non-nano Zinc Oxide protection, No Synthetic Fragrance, Rich indulgent texture improves moisturization levels, Illuminates and primes skin for makeup

Read my previous post: Is Organic Skincare Worth It?

2.Beekman 1802 Milk Primer SPF 35 2-in-1 Daily Defense Sunscreen & Makeup Perfecter

$$ || 25.00 on Ulta

Ethics || Cruelty free

Description || Mineral Zinc Oxide: One of the most effective natural sun protectants thanks to its ability to block both UVA and UVB rays, and blue light, Goat Milk & Probiotics: Boost hydration levels and help strengthen the skin barrier – it’s like yogurt for your skin, Safflower Olesomes & Shea Butter Esters: Creates a smoother, makeup-gripping surface for the perfect silicone-free canvas, completely flawless and invisible look

This post is so long oml but I had fun writing it. Which sunscreen do you guys prefer? Comment below!

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Have any questions or something you’d like me to write about? You can email me or send me a DM on Instagram!

Email: skincareteablog@moeshachhatlani

Instagram: @skincare.tea


Lim, Davin. “How to choose SUNSCREENS.” YouTube, uploaded by Dr Davin Lim. Brisbane Dermatologist. Australia, 25 June 2018,

Neutrogena. “Protecting Your Skin from Sun Damage.” Neutrogena, Accessed 7 May 2022.

Timmons, Jessica. “What’s the Difference Between Physical and Chemical Sunscreen?” Healthline, 3 Feb. 2022,

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