Physical And Chemical Sunscreens: The Good, The Bad And The Ugly

Physical and Chemical Sunscreens: The Good, The Bad And The Ugly

I am always amazed when I see that people do not know the difference between physical and chemical sunscreens, or that there are two types of sunscreens at all. It is such an important topic! But fear nothing 🙂 Today I am taking the lead and gather all the information that you need to know about physical and chemical sunscreens in one blog post.

But why do I have some knowledge myself in the first place? Well, that is my story:

Little did I know..

Although I have an olive undertone, my skin tone is pretty light and for a long time I have struggled with sun exposure, especially as a child. Every time that I stayed in the sun, I simply got a sunburnt, no matter what sunscreen or sun protection factor I used. I ended up thinking that it was simply how things were, and that I was supposed to get sunburnt before getting a tan! Seriously! Let’s now move forward to several years later: when I first started learning about makeup and skincare, I decided to purchase a thinner sunscreen to wear under my makeup. I bought one from a very renowned brand, and after trying it, my skin was so itchy! I was very confused, but this time I did not “accept” the situation, and I started to do my own research about sunscreens. Finally, after so many years, I had my answer…

Physical and chemical sunscreens

First things first. Generally speaking, on the market there are two types of sunscreens: chemical and physical (or mineral). The main differences between the two are the active ingredients that are used in their formulas to protect the skin from the sun rays and the mechanism behind it. Let’s see a visual breakdown:


  • Works as: A shield: it reflects the sun rays
  • Active ingredients: Titanium dioxide, Zinc oxide
  • Texture: thick and heavy


  • Works as: A sponge: it absorbs and “deactivates” the sun rays
  • Active ingredients: Oxybenzone, Avobenzone, Octinoxate, Octisalate, Octocrylene, Homosalate
  • Texture: smooth and thin

Both physical and chemical of sunscreens are labeled with the degree of SPF or sun protection factor that they carry. Simply put, the SPF measures the ability of a sunscreen to protect the skin from the UVB sun rays. It is true that the higher the SPF, the higher the sun protection, but these calculations are not linear, and you still need to reapply your sunscreen regularly.

The bad

Going back to my story… Shortly after into my research, I realized why I had such a bad experience with sun exposure in the past. The active ingredients in chemical sunscreens, especially oxybenzone, have been reported to cause irritations or allergies to people with sensitive skin. Not only! Some studies have found that they are also bad for the environment and some regions have actually banned sunscreens that contain these harmful ingredients. I also believe that the basic mechanism of how chemical sunscreens work (absorbing rather than reflecting) had an impact on my overall negative experience too.

But these are just the active ingredients. As a consumer you also need to check the inactive ones.

Inactive ingredients are basically all those extra ingredients that are necessary for the final texture and preservation of the product. If your skin is sensitive, you might need to check the label thoroughly. Fragrances for example can cause irritation and some preservatives can also be harmful to your skin.

The good

It was now clear to me that I had to exclude this kind of product from my routine, but what to use instead? The answer came with physical or mineral sunscreens. This type of sunscreen has several benefits that work perfectly with my sensitive skin:

  • Broad spectrum protection: it protects from both UVA and UVB sun rays
  • Immediate use: it works straight after application
  • Safe to use: its ingredients are ideal for those with sensitive skin
  • Clean skin: it does not clog the pores which is perfect if you have combination or oily skin

The ugly

If you have ever tried both physical and chemical sunscreens, you know what I am about to say: the texture! The biggest deterrent of a mineral sunscreen is its consistency which we can describe as thick and heavy. It is true: the texture of this type of sunscreen may not be pleasant. This product can also leave a white cast on your skin and it might not be ideal to apply under makeup. However, I can confidently say that this aspect has improved a lot over the years. Nowadays, companies are offering physical sunscreens that are more and more “application-friendly”.

In conclusion, I hope that this blog post inspired you to do your own research and to see what works best for you and your needs! Remember to always protect your skin and treat it well! She deserves our love so that our makeup application will be even easier 🙂


*Disclaimer: Please check your own country guidelines when it comes to the safe use and/or purchase of sunscreens. This blog is for recreational purposes only and it is based on my personal experience.

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