Sunscreen: Physical vs Chemical – what’s the big idea?


Sunscreen has now been scientifically proven as the number 1 skincare product that you that you need to use on a daily basis. “Why?” you may ask? Well, not only will sunscreen help prevent skin cancer, but it will also help to slow down the skin’s ageing process. However, not all sunscreens/sun creams are created equal.

According to an article on Forbes, “Australia and New Zealand have the highest incidence and mortality rates of melanoma in the world”. The risk is real, people! Now that we are welcoming the season of Spring to our doorstep (in Australia & New Zealand), it is essential to start thinking about protective sun-care. There is no denying that being out and about in the sun can cause sun damage, wrinkles and can also lead to Photoaging of the skin. By prolonged and regular sun exposure, the skin can also develop pigmentation, visible frown lines, and reduce the suppleness and elasticity of skin’s texture just to name a few.

To combat the harmful rays whilst enjoying the outdoors, applying sun cream is one of the best things to do. There are actually 2 types or groups of sunscreen and they are determined mainly by their active ingredients. They can be grouped into Chemical sunscreen and Physical (or mineral) sunscreen. In short, Chemical sunscreens use chemical filters to scatter and absorb the sun’s UV rays and stop the UV rays from being absorbed into the skin. While Physical sunscreens use physical filters to act as a light-reflecting barrier that sits on top of your skin and deflects the rays rather than absorbing them. The most commonly available sunscreens on the market are that of the chemical kind.

Chemical sunscreens use chemicals to scatter and absorb UV rays. Research has shown that using a chemical sunscreen can be harmful to your skin health, increase the risk of allergic reactions on the skin as well as be detrimental to your endocrine system. Some of the chemical components can mess with your hormones, leading to altered levels of estrogen as well as negatively impacting on the reproductive system. One particular baddy, called OxyBenzone, is particularly known for being a disruptor to your well-being. These toxic reactions occur due to the nature of the chemical compound which actually gets absorbed in the skin and therefore can be absorbed into your blood stream.

Studies have also been documented on Physical sunscreen barriers and physical barriers show no indication of impacting the endocrine system as the particles sit on top of the skin and do not get absorbed. Physical sun blocks are also less likely to cause irritation to the skin and therefore are generally more recommended for sensitive skin types. I personally have no reaction to physical/ mineral sunscreens but do get a breakout from most chemical ones. Physical sunblocks are also considered to be longer wearing but are not waterproof.  Conversely, with chemical sun creams, the sun can actually wear away at the effectiveness of the sun protection so regular reapplication is necessary. On the plus side of chemical sun creams, they are water resistant so they are best to use when going to the beach or perspiring when playing sport.

A few key ingredients to look out for when searching for a Physical Sunscreen include Titanium Dioxide and Zinc Oxide. Zinc Oxide is slightly more favourable as it is a “broad spectrum” protector and protects against both UVA and UVB rays. Titanium Dioxide only protects against UVB rays.

A question I came across when researching this topic is whether or not sunscreen is effective from the moment it is applied. The answer here is dependent on which group it comes from. Physical sunscreen is literally a sunblock and blocks the rays instantly. Whereas the chemical ones become effective from a chemical reaction which can take at minimum 20 minutes to start working. So if using a chemical sunscreen, make sure to apply it roughly 20 minutes before hitting the outdoors for optimal protection.

Whether you use chemical or physical  (or mineral) barriers is really a personal preference and I currently use both, depending on which foundation I am using on the day. But my preference definitely lies with a physical barrier as this prevents anything being absorbed into the skin. Physical sunscreens though can tend to leave a white cast and don’t sit very well under makeup. Chemical sunscreens can work beautifully with makeup and can often work well as a primer. Oh, the woes of the beauty world! In my opinion, it takes trial and error to find the right combination of sunscreen and foundation to work well together. Foundation that contains SPF is not sufficient sun protection alone. A sunscreen needs to be applied as well.

One of my absolute favourite physical sunscreen products I use is from Rationale, the Rationale Beautiful Skin SPF 50+. It provides a luminous underlay and can be worn alone for a radiant fresh glow or can also be applied under makeup. As the texture is a super-thin fluid, it applies beautifully and acts as the name suggests, by giving you beautiful skin. Active ingredients in this product are Zinc Oxide, Titanium Dioxide and Iron Oxides.

So if the risk of developing skin cancer is not enough to convince you that you should start using sun cream daily, then at least apply it for vanity’s sake to keep your skin looking youthful. You would still be better off wearing any sun cream, even a chemical one, than no sun cream at all. So if chemical sun creams are what you prefer, then continue as you were and you will still be protected.

Last words – don’t forget about your eyes, lips and body too.

Sunglasses: try to get a pair of sunglasses that has a UV protection rating to protect your eyes and the fragile skin around your eyes.

SPF Lip Balm: Apply an SPF30 Lip balm to protect your lips from getting sunburnt. Lip sun damage can include fine lines around the lips, dry & chapped lips as well as blisters and cold sores. That’s right, lots of sun and unprotected lips can bring on cold sores.

Oh, and wear a hat, of course!

Fave sunscreens:
Physical –


Chemical –

Mecca Cosmetica To Save Face SPF 30+ (Sits beautifully under makeup)

Remember that sun protection is needed even on a gloomy day – those rays don’t only come out when the sun is shining brightly.

Slip, Slop, Slap, stay sun-safe & take care of your skin!


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