Comparison of the week: Chemical vs physical sunscreen

Lauren Chaplin 18 February 2019 NEWS

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

We compare virtually everything at Finder and our Comparison of the Week series is here to prove it. This week we tackle an Australian necessity: sunscreen.

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 absorbed 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.

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

The essentials

Both chemical and physical sunscreens are used to prevent sunburn and skin damage. Chemical sunscreens, also called organic sunscreens, contain chemical compounds that absorb UV rays. Physical sunscreens, also called sun blocks, "mineral" and "natural" sunscreens work by sitting on top of the skin like a hat to deflect and scatter damaging UV rays away from the skin. Both types are safe to use (despite some of the scare stories you might see on the Internet) but there are some differences.

The comparison

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.

Chemical Physical
Key features Uses 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 protection Protection 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 effect Only starts to be effective 20 minutes after application. Begins to work as soon as it's applied to the skin.
Skin irritation Higher SPF formulas make skin irritation more likely. Can also increase redness in rosacea-prone skin and cause stinging if it drips into 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.
Aesthetic Does not cause significant white spots or streaking. Pro: No one likes the chalky, Dracula look. Often leaves white streaks on the skin that require more effort to rub in. Pro: Attempts to get sunscreen rubbed in can be a good way of attracting a mate.
Sweat resistance More 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 removal Fairly water-resistant, making it harder to remove. Can be rubbed off more easily than chemical sunscreen as it starts to wear off once in contact with water.
Environmental impact Banned in some areas as it damages the oceanic ecosystem. Not banned, but not great. Eco-friendly alternatives available.
Price point As an example, the Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Face Lotion Sunscreen SPF50 is $17.00 from Woolworths. As an example, the Neutrogena Sheer Face Zinc Sunscreen SPF50 is $24.00 from Woolworths.

The lowdown

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, so 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.

Ultimately, the best type of sunscreen for you depends on your situation and the one you are happy to keep using. If you plan on swimming or punishing yourself with strenuous exercise, you might want to opt for 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.

Catch up with more of our weekly comparisons, or do your own by heading to the Finder home page to compare credit cards, savings accounts, shopping deals and much, much more. Go on, be a Finder.

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