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What is the Difference Between Physical and Chemical Sunscreens?

What is the difference between physical and chemical sunscreens? Which one is better? What is the best sunscreen for your skin type? You already know you should be protecting your skin from UV rays daily, but here are some key points you may not know.

As someone with oily, acne-prone, and sensitive skin, I’ve been paying a lot more attention to what ingredients I put on my face because when my skin doesn’t like a product, it shows. We’re talking redness, tingly sensations, breakouts, the works. Learning about the science behind skincare is a huge interest of mine. I want to share the knowledge I’ve learned with you all to ensure you make a more informed decision next time you use sunscreen.

Physical versus Chemical Sunscreen

The easiest way to distinguish between physical and chemical sunscreens is by looking at the active ingredients. Physical sunscreens contain mineral inorganic compounds, like zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. Chemical sunscreens are made up of organic compounds, like octylcrylen, avobenzone, oxybenzone, octisalate, and octinoxate.

When I say organic, I mean it scientifically, not in the marketing sense. Been a while since your last chemistry class? Same. Let’s refresh.

  • Organic compounds: any chemical compounds that contain carbon
  • Inorganic compounds: any compound that is not organic

For the sake of simplicity, I will be referring to them as physical and chemical throughout the rest of this post.

Physical sunscreens reflect UV rays whereas chemical sunscreens absorb UV rays. What does this mean? Basically, the former is less likely to irritate your skin since it scatters sun-rays whereas the latter can increase irritation because it changes UV rays into heat on the skin’s surface, then releases heat from the skin. While both types protect your skin from sun exposure, there are definitely pros and cons for each formula.

Chemical Sunscreens


  • Absorb quickly into skin
  • Thinner consistency
  • Spread easily on skin
  • Need less product to cover face
  • Less likely to leave a white cast


  • Absorb UV rays
  • Trap heat onto skin
  • Can increase discoloration and brown spots from over-heating skin
  • Need about 20 minutes before working
  • Higher risk of skin irritation with use of SPF 50+
  • More likely to irritate dry, acne-prone, rosacea-prone, and sensitive skin
  • May clog pores for oily skin
  • Can sting if drips into eyes
  • Can increase redness
  • Shorter shelf life

Physical Sunscreens


  • Reflect UV rays
  • Works immediately
  • Last longer in direct UV light as long as skin isn’t wet or sweaty
  • Less likely to clog pores
  • Less likely to irritate skin
  • Longer shelf life
  • Ideal for acne-prone, heat-activated (redness and rosacea), and sensitive skin


  • Thicker consistency
  • May leave a white cast
  • May not be compatible with medium and dark skin tones
  • Can rub off easily from sweat and cause white drip marks
  • Need more frequent reapplication

Does higher SPF mean the sunscreen protects my skin more?

Quite the contrary. Surprisingly, an SPF between 30 and 50 is all you need to protect your skin. Any number higher than that is marketing geniuses at work trying to convince you that more is better, whereas higher SPF’s actually increase your chances of skin irritation, particularly if you have sensitive skin. There is no scientific evidence that an SPF higher than 50 protects your skin more. Keep that in mind next time you browse for sunscreen.

Does layering a physical sunscreen on top of a chemical sunscreen protect skin more?

There isn’t much research about layering sunscreens, so that’s up to you to form your own opinion. One layer of sunscreen is enough to protect your skin from the sun.

How much sunscreen do I need to apply to my face and body?

Two tablespoons is the magic number for your face and body. For your face, a nickel sized amount is ideal. Remember to reapply every two hours, or more frequently if you’re sweating it off, for maximum effectiveness.

What are the best sunscreens?

It honestly comes down to trial and error because everyone’s skin is different, so experiment until you find the best one that works for you. Watch my YouTube video to learn more about my top three essential sunscreens which work well under makeup and do not irritate my skin. Below are my favorite sunscreens (denoted by *), as well as top rated ones based on customer reviews from Sephora and Target.

Shop Sunscreens

Do you prefer physical or chemical sunscreens? What brand is your favorite? Let me know in the comments!

This Post Has 20 Comments

  1. Karie

    Had no clue half the time I forget to use any. I am horrible because I have a ginger and forget to have him put it on as well. I need to care especially now that I am getting older. 🙂

    1. Queen Shirin

      Definitely try making it a habit to apply sunscreen daily! You’re never too old to start using it!

      xo Shirin

  2. Kristin

    Physical sunscreens, for sure! I’d like to try Drunk Elephant.

    1. Queen Shirin

      Agreed! The Drunk Elephant one tends to pill a bit, but it can easily be rubbed off. Otherwise, I love it!

      xo Shirin

    1. Queen Shirin

      Woohoo! So glad you learned something new, Neesh!

      xo Shirin

  3. Amy

    You broke it down and explained it really well! Great post, very informative!! Thanks!

  4. Lexi

    I love Drunk Elephant! Awesome, informative post. Thanks for the breakdown, I had no idea the difference between physical and chemical sunscreens before!

    1. Queen Shirin

      Same! Drunk Elephant has worked wonders for clearing up my skin and I enjoy their Umbra. Glad you learned something new from this post.

      xo Shirin

  5. D

    I had no idea such things as physical and chemical sunscreens existed. Well from your post and information given it seems that my sunscreen is a physical one and to be totally honest I love it and wouldn’t change it! Its the Apivita brand, if you have heard of this brand, and they do products with anywhere from 80-98% natural products. You should check it out!

    D, xo || from

    1. Queen Shirin

      Oo your sunscreen sounds amazing! I haven’t heard of Apivita. I’ll definitely check them out. Thanks for sharing, D!

      xo Shirin

  6. corey hudson

    I had no idea about hte two kinds I will be buying one of these in the future thanks

    1. Queen Shirin

      Yup, the more you know! I hope you enjoy whichever sunscreen you end up getting.

      xo Shirin

  7. Elizabeth

    Great post. I had no idea there were two types of sunscreen

    1. Queen Shirin

      Yes! Glad you learned something new, Elizabeth!

      xo Shirin

  8. Anna

    I’m definitely biased about this because I’m allergic to chemical sunscreens! If someone even uses a spray-on chemical sunscreen near me, my eyes turn bright red and start watering, and my eyelids swell up, and my sinuses constrict. So physical sunscreens all the way! I love Badger brand’s tinted sunscreen because it’s organic and doesn’t leave a white cast.

    1. Queen Shirin

      Oh no! I personally prefer physical sunscreens, too, since I have acne prone skin. I gotta check out Badger. Thanks for the recommendation, Anna!

      xo Shirin

  9. Jackie

    I live in Florida and didn’t even realize this! Great post and sending to friends!

    1. Queen Shirin

      So glad you learned something new from this post, Jackie! Yes, definitely share it with your friends!

      xo Shirin

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