The Differences Between Physical and Chemical Sunscreen Explained By a Skin Cancer Doctor

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You’ve probably heard of sunscreen being referred to as ‘chemical’ or ‘physical’. This simply refers to the type of sunscreen, with chemical and physical (which is also sometimes called mineral) the two most common products on the SPF market. While both of these sunscreens work to protect you from harmful UVA and UVB rays, the way they do this is slightly different.

To find out more about the differences between chemical and physical sunscreen, we turned to Dr Scott McGregor, co-founder of SPF brand We Are Feel Good Inc. and skin cancer and cosmetic physician. Here’s what you need to know.

What Is Chemical Sunscreen?

“Chemical sunscreens are widely used to make broad-spectrum sunscreens — that is, using a combination of filters to block UVA amd UVB rays,” said Dr McGregor. “They are technically considered ‘organic’, as the UV filters used are organic chemicals (substances that contain carbon).”

What Is Physical Sunscreen?

“Physical (mineral) sunscreens generally use zinc oxide as their UV filter,” said Dr McGregor. “Zinc oxide is an excellent broad-spectrum filter, covering almost the full range of UVA and UVB, but not to the same extent as a well-formulated ‘chemical sunscreen’ using multiple filters. Think of using zinc as using a sheet rather than a blanket to protect from the cold; both cover the whole body, but one gives more complete protection.”

“Chemical and physical filters work in exactly the same way, by absorbing UV rays from the sun and converting them to heat. They only vary by how effectively they do this.”

What Does a Skin Cancer Doctor Recommend?

“There is no doubt that the ‘best’ protection, or most complete protection from UVA and UVB radiation is achieved using multiple filters,” said Dr McGregor. “This could be a combination of organic (chemical) filters, or a mix of organic filters with zinc oxide, or organic filters with titanium.

We Are Feel Good Inc. offers a variety of combinations as we understand that everyone is different and there is no ‘one size fits all’ in the sunscreen world. At the end of the day, the best sunscreen is the one you want to wear! Just wear sunscreen and reapply.”

Physical Sunscreens

The formula of physical sunscreens can sometimes feel a little thicker — think of using zinc SPF. Thankfully, most of the physical sunscreens available these days are far better than when we were kids and don’t feel so thick and heavy on the skin.

Popular physical sunscreens include the Invisible Zinc Face + Body SPF50 ($17.99), the Sunbutter SPF50 Water Resistant Reef Safe Sunscreen ($29.95) and the Ultra Violette Lean Screen SPF50+ Skinscreen ($49)

Chemical Sunscreens

Chemical sunscreens are probably what you’re most familiar with as most SPF brands favour this formulation. Our favourite chemical sunscreens include the We Are Feel Good Inc. Sensitive Sunscreen SPF 50+ ($29.95) Aesthetics RX Face & Body Sunscreen SPF50 ($59), the Ultra Violette Queen Screen SPF50+ Luminising Sun Serum ($47).

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