Chemical vs physical sunscreen: How to compare types

Sunscreen is the most important skincare product you can use. But which type is best?

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Every Australian knows the classic "Slip, Slop, Slap" jingle off by heart. In fact, the little song that graces our television screens every summer is so ingrained in our psyche, it ought to be our national anthem.

Despite this, at some point, we've all ignored Sid the Seagull's well-meaning advice, suffered the hellish punishment of sunburn and sworn to use sunscreen every day for the rest of our lives.

But choosing a sunscreen to commit to can be difficult. With two types of formulas to choose from – chemical and physical – our comparison will help you decipher the difference between the two so you can get back into the good graces of our sun-smart feathery friend.

What are chemical and physical sunscreens?

Both chemical and physical sunscreens are used to prevent sunburn and skin damage. However, they work in different ways.

Chemical sunscreens (also called organic sunscreens) contain chemical compounds that absorb UV rays.

Physical sunscreens (also called sunblocks, or mineral or natural sunscreens) work by sitting on top of the skin like a hat to deflect and scatter damaging UV rays away from the skin.

Chemical vs physical sunscreen

Both physical and chemical sunscreens work hard to protect your skin from damaging UV rays, but there are some key differences between the two types which we've broken down below:

ChemicalPhysical
Key featuresUses synthetic compounds to absorb UV light before it reaches the skin. Made with oxybenzone and various other chemicals. Lightweight formula. Often contains other skincare ingredients like peptides.Contains tiny minerals that act as a shield to deflect the sun's rays. Made from titanium dioxide or zinc oxide. Thicker formula as it sits on the skin. Long shelf life.
UV protectionProtection levels begin to drop when in direct UV light, requiring more frequent application.Blocks both UVA and UVB rays and is naturally broad spectrum.
Time to take effectOnly starts to be effective 20 minutes after application.Begins to work as soon as it's applied to the skin.
Skin irritationHigher SPF formulas make skin irritation more likely. Can also increase redness in rosacea-prone skin and cause stinging if it drips into your eyes through sweating.Unlikely to irritate the skin or clog skin pores as it does not deeply penetrate the skin. Also limits redness as it deflects heat from the skin.
AestheticDoes not cause significant white spots or streaking.Often leaves white streaks on the skin that require more effort to rub in.
Sweat resistanceMore resistant to water and sweat, making it ideal for swimming or sports.Begins to rub off when it comes into contact with sweat or water. More frequent application needed.
Ease of removalFairly water-resistant, making it harder to remove.Can be rubbed off more easily than chemical sunscreen as it starts to wear off once it comes in contact with water.
Environmental impactBanned in some areas as it damages the ecosystem of the ocean.Not banned, but not great. Eco-friendly alternatives are available.
Price pointAs an example, the Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Face Lotion Sunscreen SPF50 is $17 from Woolworths.As an example, the Neutrogena Sheer Face Zinc Sunscreen SPF50 is $24 from Woolworths.

The verdict

In terms of skin protection, both types of sunscreen seem fairly evenly matched.

Both are safe to use and will do a great job of protecting your skin, as long as you are applying them generously and remembering to reapply throughout the day. And either option is always better than not wearing any sunscreen at all.

If you plan on swimming or exercising, you might want to opt for a chemical sunscreen as it's more resistant to sweat.

For everyday wear, though, physical sunscreen might be better suited as it works immediately and is a lot less irritating, which is great news for those with sensitive skin.

Ultimately, the best type of sunscreen for you depends on your situation and what personally feels the most comfortable for you.

If you still need help choosing a reliable sunscreen, you can check out our guide to the best sunscreens in 2021.


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Image credit: Getty Images

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