SPF 101: Physical Sunscreen VS. Chemical Sunscreen

Hundreds of thousands of people are diagnosed with skin cancer in the United States every year. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, one in five Americans will be diagnosed with some form of skin cancer by the time they turn 70. One person dies every hour of every day in the United States of melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer. Do these statistics have your attention yet?



With May being National Skin Cancer Awareness Month, we wanted to discuss one of the most effective (and easiest!) actions you can take to protect yourself from developing skin cancer – the daily use of a topical SPF. Most of us know that we should wear SPF while outdoors, but with so many options available, it’s easy to feel confused about what type of sunscreen is best for our skin. Let’s look at the two main groups of SPF formulations, physical and chemical, so you can make educated decisions about which one may be best for your skin and your lifestyle!


Why SPF is Important to Protect Your Skin from Skin Cancer and Premature Aging


Did you know that sun exposure causes over 90% of the visible signs of aging we see on our skin, like brown spots, broken blood vessels, fine lines, and wrinkles? This statistic has driven many of us to apply sunscreen every day, come rain or shine, but there are still some people who only reserve their sunscreen use for tropical vacations and summer days on the lake. That doesn’t cut. That’s because most of the UV exposure we accumulate throughout our lives happens through the windows of our cars and homes! It’s therefore essential to find a formulation that works for your skin AND your lifestyle to ensure you are diligently protecting your skin every day. Don’t worry; there are many options and formulas today that match every skin type and condition! 

Physical Sunscreens


Have you ever applied an SPF and felt like you looked like a character from the movie Twilight afterward? Most likely, you used a physical sunscreen. Zinc and titanium oxide are two of the key ingredients in this type of sun protection, and they are white and opaque by nature. As a result, they cast a white reflective sheen to the skin, almost like an iridescent fish scale.  


Physical sunscreens work by reflecting the sun’s UVA/UVB rays off the surface of your skin. This quality prevents heat from being trapped against the skin, making them a popular option for children, sensitive skin types, and for use after skin procedures like chemical peels. Physical sunscreens tend to be thicker and tackier than other formulations, but they are also comprised of more natural ingredients, as opposed to chemicals.



Chemical Sunscreens


Unlike physical sunscreens, which reflect the sun’s damaging rays, chemical sunscreens absorb UVA/UVB rays and convert them to heat. This heat then releases off the surface of your skin. Common chemicals found in this type of sun protection are ingredients that end in “-benzone,” such as Avobenzone, and others like Octinoxate and Octocrylene.


Chemical sunscreens are very popular because they can be formulated in more versatile and desirable ways for people’s lifestyles. They are often found in makeup, serums, gels, and sprays. But, because chemical sunscreens trap heat against the skin’s surface, they can irritate skin and be contraindicated for some skin types. This is especially evident with rosacea and sensitive skin.  


Chemical sunscreens have also been proven to be very detrimental to the health of coral beds and ocean life. As many of us apply sunscreen while swimming and snorkeling on tropical vacations, this can be especially damaging. As a result, some states and countries are passing legislation to ban the use of chemical sunscreens to protect their reefs and ocean wildlife.


Which Sunscreen Type is best?


The best SPF for you is the one that you will use regularly. That means you must like how it looks and feels. Chemical sunscreens tend to be more diverse, less expensive, and more cosmetically appealing than physical sunscreens. But, this comes with a tradeoff. More chemicals in a product can heighten your chances of becoming irritated by the product or having a reaction.



Many physical sunscreen companies have now added safe mineral tints to their formulations to tame down the white sheen that results from zinc. Some patients and consumers find this favorable as it provides coverage, almost like a makeup foundation! The most critical aspect of choosing a sunscreen is making sure it is something you like so you actually wear it! That choice will be different for everyone. Be sure to look for formulations labeled “broad spectrum” to ensure you are getting protection from BOTH UVA and UVB rays and that the SPF is at least 30. 

If you need assistance in choosing an SPF, consider meeting with a Harmony Wellness provider who can help you identify your skin type and condition and match you to a sunscreen that will best benefit you!


Check out Harmony’s vast selection of SPF products by CLICKING HERE!

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