I was having a conversation with my content intern about sunscreen when she suddenly asked me, what’s the difference between a chemical and physical sunscreen. I was taken back.
“Wait, you don’t know?” This girl is my go-to when it comes to all trending topics and skincare hacks, so I was utterly confused — and quickly realized that this conversation had manifested itself into a blog post for my readers.
Related: SPF 101: Everything You Never Knew
So whether you are a skincare junkie or barely interested in things like this – you should know the difference between a chemical and mineral sunscreen. So, I’ll break it down for you.
Sunscreen comes in two different forms: chemical and physical, and before I get into what the differences are, you should know that they have some alternate names. Physical sunscreen is often referred to as “mineral” sunscreen and chemical sunscreens can be called synthetic – the words are used interchangeably.
What is a physical (or mineral) sunscreen?
A physical sunscreen provides a barrier made of mineral ingredients that sit on top of your skin to deflect UVA and UVB rays from the sun.
What is a chemical sunscreen?
A chemical sunscreen is applied to your skin and absorbed into it. It allows your skin to take in the UVA and UVB rays at a superficial level and creates a chemical reaction that converts the UV rays into heat.
How can you tell which sunscreen is which?
So the FDA is a pretty useless regulatory agency, but they do require that all sunscreens list out the active ingredients at the top of the back of the bottle so that it’s easy to read. Score!
So… what am I looking for?
Physical or Mineral Sunscreens will have one of the two ingredients on the back (or sometimes both!)
- Titanium Dioxide
- Zinc Oxide
Chemical sunscreens are a little more complicated. Common ingredients include:
Favorite Mineral Sunscreens
Favorite Chemical Sunscreens
Favorite Hybrid Sunscreens
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Which one leaves a white cast?
Women (and men) of color have been frustrated for years that sunscreen often leaves a terrible white cast. While there are some options, in general physical sunscreens are the ones that leave the white cast. But we’ve come a long way and all of the option that I recommend do not leave a white cast.
Which is best for sensitive skin, pregnant women, or the ocean?
Unfortunately, it’s also physical or mineral sunscreen. While the white cast is a heavy price to pay – some situations, including if you have sensitive skin, are best left to physical sunscreens. But again, we’ve come a long way.
When it comes to travel, you want to make sure that you chose a physical sunscreen that is also labeled as reef-safe – this one is my favorite.
So why do people use chemical sunscreens?
Because the good ones are glorious. Sigh. I’ve been using a chemical sunscreen for years because I just love the way it feels. Convincing Sahir to put on SPF everyday has been a challenge in itself, but adding a sunblock smell and white cast made it near impossible to get him on board.
Chemical sunscreens (the good ones) can go on like primer with a clear, thin gel texture, no white cast and no smell. This one is my favorite and gives the most beautiful glow.
Anything else I should know?
Yes! Physical sunscreen takes about 15 minutes to be absorbed into the skin to work, so give yourself time before sun exposure. Chemical sunscreen starts working immediately after it’s applied.
Which SPF should I chose?
The one that you will wear every single day. If you ever fall down the rabbit hole of Vogue’s 73 questions videos on YouTube, watch them ask any celebrity or model their best beauty trick. Take a shot if they say sunscreen everyday.
Even with melanin in your body if you’re a person of color, even on cloudy days, and even if you work indoors (near a window) you should wear SPF every single day. Make it a part of your morning skincare routine. The sun ages you with dark spots, wrinkles, and sun damage in ways that are almost irreversible.
The best sunscreen is the one that you will wear everyday. So find what works for you and commit to it!