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What’s the Difference Between Chemical And Physical SPF?

Plus, our recommendations for each type.

May 26, 2022

Do you want to look older than you are?

Probably not. But that’s exactly what unprotected sun exposure does to you. If you’re serious about preventing signs of aging and skin cancer, wearing SPF every day is the single most important step you can take. 

But it seems like lately there’s been a lot of misinformation, scaremongering, or just plain confusing jargon floating around about SPF on the internet. If you’re wondering how to make sense of it all, we’re here to help. Today we’re explaining the difference between chemical and physical SPF and what type is best for certain skin types and conditions, so that you can find the type that’s right for you. 

What is chemical SPF?

Chemical SPF is called that because the active ingredient causes a chemical reaction. The active ingredient absorbs and converts harmful radiation into heat, which is then dispersed away from the body. Common active ingredients are oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate, or octinoxate. These ingredients are often used in conjunction, so you may see several of those words on the SPF label. 

It takes half an hour after application before chemical SPF starts working, so you have to plan in advance, and apply before you go into the sun. 

Who is it best for?

Chemical SPF is good for people who don’t have sensitive skin, acne, or similar inflammatory conditions. And some chemical sunscreens are more irritating than others; for instance you may tolerate a formula with octisalate, but not oxybenzone. 

Chemical SPF is great for those with dark or deep skin tones, as it applies sheer and does not leave a whitecast.   

What is physical SPF?

Physical SPF works by forming a barrier that bounces back harmful radiation from the sun. It’s also referred to as mineral SPF. The active ingredients are zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, which are minerals mined from the earth. 

Who is it best for?

Physical SPF is best for those with sensitive skin and/or acne. This is because the heat-based reaction that occurs with chemical SPF can be irritating. Physical SPF is also ideal for people who spend a lot of time outside–PE teachers, lifeguards, etc–who don’t have time to wait for SPF to start working. Once applied, physical SPF is effective immediately. 

But physical SPF has one big downside: it can appear chalky on dark or deep skin tones, though formulations have improved significantly compared to ten or twenty years ago. Tinted physical sunscreens with added pigments can be a better choice for those with darker skin tones. 

What type should I use while pregnant or breastfeeding?

Many people opt for physical SPF during pregnancy/breastfeeding as a precaution because oxybenzone and other chemical SPFs are absorbed into the bloodstream. It’s theoretically possible that the baby could be exposed to these ingredients that way, but science on the subject remains inconclusive and unless you’re using lots of chemical SPF all the time, the amounts absorbed into the bloodstream are minimal. Physical SPF isn’t absorbed into the bloodstream. For this reason, many women opt for physical SPF while pregnant. We think it’s best to ask your obstetrician for advice if you’re concerned about what SPF to use.  

An important caveat: 

Some formulas contain both types of SPF! So if you have a strong preference for one over the other, get familiar with the ingredient names and scan the ingredient list on a product before buying it. 

Our Recommendations:

We think the best sunscreen for you is one you’ll use every day. (Yes, we mean every day.) Your SPF is your best line of defense against premature aging and skin cancer. It’s the most important product in your entire routine. This is one product category where it’s worth trying several options until you find one you really love to use. 

Whether you choose physical, chemical, or a hybrid, the most important things to look for are: 

  • “broad spectrum protection” against both UVB and UVA rays
  • a minimum rating of SPF 30 or higher. 
  • If you are fair-skinned, aim for SPF 45 at least. 

Here’s some of our favorites: 

Chemical
  • Supergoop Unseen Sunscreen--looks and feels like a clear silicone makeup primer. A fantastic choice for darker skin tones, because there’s absolutely no white cast. Leaves a silky matte finish.
  • Inisfree Daily UV Defense Sunscreen–This cult favorite is lightweight, great under makeup, and super affordable.
  • Black Girl Sunscreen Broad Spectrum SPF 30–this Black-owned SPF gets rave reviews for being truly sheer and not leaving a white cast. It has a dewy, moisturizing finish. 
  • Jack Black Oil Free Sun Guard Sunscreen Water Resistant SPF 45 (contains both physical and chemical SPF)--truly water-resistant and won’t run into eyes on beach days. Also works great as a daily sunscreen for oily/combination skin types.  

Physical
  • La Roche Posay Anthelios 50 Zinc Oxide Sunscreen SPF 50--a tried-and-true formula that’s excellent for sensitive skin.  
  • Aveeno Positively Mineral Sensitive Skin SPF 50--among the less expensive options out there, this SPF still performs beautifully, with minimal whitecast, and it settles in quickly. 
  • Sun Bum Mineral SPF 50 Lotion Sunscreen–this one does leave a faint white cast, but it’s easy to apply and has a sweet coconut scent. 
  • Bare Minerals Complexion Rescue Tinted Hydrating Gel Cream Broad Spectrum SPF 30–this award-winning option has 20 shade options to choose from, so if you want a physical SPF that won’t leave a white cast, this could work for you. 

So now you know the difference between chemical and physical SPF and who should use each type. Remember, you only get one face–protect it with an SPF you like to wear, and you’ll be rewarded in the long run.

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