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The difference between physical and chemical sunscreen

Should you choose a physical or chemical sunscreen? David Harvey, M.D., a Piedmont dermatologist and Mohs surgeon, explains the difference.

“Whether they choose a chemical sunscreen or a physical sunblock, if a patient wears an SPF of 30, I’m happy with it,” says Dr. Harvey. “That said, there are some key differences between chemical and physical formulas.”

  • Chemical sunscreen absorbs into the skin and then absorbs UV rays, converts the rays into heat, and releases them from the body. The active ingredients in chemical sunscreens include avobenzone, octinoxate and oxybenzone.

  • Physical sunblock sits on top of the skin and reflects the sun’s rays. The minerals titanium dioxide and zinc oxide are the main active ingredients in physical blocks.

Chemical vs. physical sunscreen

Dr. Harvey says there are pros and cons to both types of sunscreen.

Physical sunblock tends to be:

  • Less irritating and a better fit for sensitive skin.

  • More moisturizing, which can feel heavy on the skin.

  • Difficult to fully blend into the skin. However, newer brands now offer matte and tinted versions that have less of a white cast and can give the skin a smooth, even appearance.

Chemical sunscreen is a better option if you:

  • Are swimming and need a water-resistant formulation.

  • Play sports or sweat a lot during the day.

  • Want a sunscreen that absorbs quickly into the skin.

What to look for when choosing a sunscreen

Whether you choose physical or chemical SPF, there are several things to look for on the label, says Dr. Harvey:

  • Broad spectrum (protects from both UVA and UVB rays)

  • Fragrance-free

  • Noncomedogenic (won’t clog pores)

  • Oil-free

  • Paraben-free

  • SPF of at least 30 or higher

Sunscreen for acne-prone or sensitive skin

If you have acne-prone or sensitive skin, the right sunscreen won’t make you break out — in fact, it can improve the appearance of your skin. Look for a product labeled for sensitive or blemish-prone skin.

“Some sunscreens can reduce the appearance of blemishes and discoloration because they contain niacinamide, which is the in the vitamin B3 family,” says Dr. Harvey.

“If you aren’t sure which sunscreen is right for you, get a few different samples from your dermatologist or pharmacy,” he says. “Put a dab on your wrist for a few days in a row. If you don’t develop a reaction, then it is probably okay to use on your face.”

Now that you know the difference between physical and chemical sunscreen, learn the correct way to apply sunscreen.

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