Chemical and Physical Sunscreen: What's the Difference?

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We all know that sunscreen is a necessity — there's no debate there. Whether you're indoors or outside, winter or summer, you should be wearing SPF every day to protect your skin from sun damage. What's not so widely agreed upon is what type of sunscreen to use: chemical sunscreen vs physical sunscreen.

Many chemical sunscreen products have been the gold standard for sun protection for years. Recently, physical formulas, otherwise known as mineral sunscreens, have grown in popularity and taken over a large majority of the market. When you are looking for a new SPF product, there are ample chemical and physical sunscreen options available to you. Both types are backed by dermatologists and top-rated reviews, and come with their own list of benefits and drawbacks.

Ahead, learn more about the difference between chemical and physical sunscreens and find out which type is right for you.

Experts Featured in This Article

Martha Viera, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist based in Florida.

Orit Markowitz, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist and director of Pigmented Lesions and Skin Cancer at Mount Sinai.

The Difference Between Mineral vs. Chemical Sunscreen

The main contrast between chemical vs. physical sunscreen is how it blocks UV rays. "Chemical sunscreens absorb into the skin and absorb the sun's rays," dermatologist Martha Viera tells PS. "Physical sunscreens sit on top of your skin and deflect the sun's rays."

The ingredients in each type of sunscreen are how the formulas protect you from sun damage. "Chemical sunscreens have ingredients that penetrate into the skin and bond with the sun's UV rays, transforming them into heat that is then released back out of the skin," says dermatologist Orit Markowitz. "Physical sunscreens contain mineral ingredients such as titanium dioxide or zinc oxide (two ingredients generally found to be safe and effective) that rest on top of the skin and deflect the sun's harmful photons of ultraviolet rays away from your skin."

Mineral Sunscreen: Benefits and Drawbacks

Generally speaking, physical sunscreens are suitable for all skin types, even sensitive. "Physical UV filters can be less irritating for those with sensitive skin," says Dr. Viera. "Physical sunscreens are also safe to use on babies and during pregnancy."

Because physical blockers sit on top of the skin, they can leave a cast or residue behind but this is not harmful to the skin. "Although these sunscreens tend to feel heavier and leave a trace, they are mostly non-comedogenic and tend to be associated with less adverse skin irritations than chemical sunscreen formulations," says Dr. Markowitz. This makes them suitable for all skin types, including acne-prone and oily.

Chemical Sunscreen: Benefits and Drawbacks

Chemical sunscreens come with their own list of benefits. First, you have consistency and feel regarding the formulation. "Chemical sunscreens are thinner and spread on the skin easily," says Dr. Viera. "And less product is needed to protect the skin." Dr. Markowitz agrees: "Because chemical sunscreens are absorbed into the skin, they tend to have a lighter formulation than physical sunscreens."

It's this key difference in formulation that usually contributes to a person's preference for chemical sunscreens. But there are a few drawbacks, too. "They tend to have more chemical ingredients to provide broad spectrum coverage from UV rays, including preservatives, dyes, and fragrances which can cause skin irritations," says Dr. Markowitz. "The preservatives in them tend to irritate sensitive skin types, and their absorption tends to clog pores, causing acne flare-ups."

Additionally, chemical blockers typically use a combination of oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate, and/or octinoxate, which have been found to be irritating. "If absorbed [they can] alter some functions in the human body related to hormone production amongst other harmful effects on humans."

That doesn't mean all chemical sunscreens are harmful to the body — some are made without the potentially irritating ingredients stated above. Dr. Viera says to look for dermatologist-recommended brands when shopping for chemical sunscreens if you prefer that type. There are also products on the market that contain both chemical and physical UV-blockers.

Keep scrolling for product recommendations for both types.

Best Mineral Face Sunscreen

Best Mineral Face Sunscreen

Dermalogica Invisible Physical Defense Sunscreen SPF 30 ($49)

While zinc oxide is the primary blocker in the Dermalogica Invisible Physical Defense Sunscreen SPF 30, it's also infused with other good-for-skin ingredients and antioxidants to quell inflammation and dryness.

Best Mineral Body Sunscreen

Best Mineral Body Sunscreen

Coola Mineral Body Sunscreen Lotion SPF 50 ($36)

Both zinc oxide and titanium dioxide provide broad-spectrum UVA/UVB protection when you use the Coola Mineral Body Sunscreen Lotion SPF 50, but we especially appreciate the lightweight touch and zero fragrance.

Best Mineral Spray Sunscreen

Best Mineral Spray Sunscreen

EltaMD UV Aero Broad-Spectrum SPF 45 ($38)

While the EltaMD UV Aero Broad-Spectrum SPF 45 goes on white, it quickly blends out to a clear finish. This mineral sunscreen features two physical blockers: zinc oxide and octinoxate.

Best Chemical Face Sunscreen

Best Chemical Face Sunscreen

La Roche-Posay Anthelios Ultra Light Face Sunscreen Fluid Broad Spectrum SPF 60 ($33)

A dermatologist (and editor) favorite for a reason, the La Roche-Posay Anthelios Ultra Light Face Sunscreen Fluid Broad Spectrum SPF 60 feels like nothing on skin but packs a big sun protection punch, thanks to a mix of ingredients like homosalate, octocrylene, and avobenzone.

Best Chemical Body Sunscreen

Best Chemical Body Sunscreen

Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Dry Touch Sunscreen Lotion SPF 55 ($10)

Another tried and true over the years, the Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Dry Touch Sunscreen Lotion SPF 55 has a silky finish that feels not at all greasy. The broad-spectrum combo of oxybenzone, octisalate, homosalate, and avobenzone help protect against UVA/UVB rays.

Best Chemical Spray Sunscreen

Best Chemical Spray Sunscreen

Coppertone Sport Sunscreen Spray SPF 30 ($11)

Perfect for an outdoor run or sweaty days at the beach, the Coppertone Sport Sunscreen Spray SPF 30 features a water-resistant formula that's super easy to apply.


— Additional reporting by Renee Rodriguez

Jessica Harrington is the senior beauty editor at PS, where she writes about hair, makeup, skin care, piercings, tattoos, and more. As a New York City-based writer and editor with a degree in journalism and over eight years of industry experience, she loves to interview industry experts, keep up with the latest trends, and test new products.

Renee Rodriguez is a staff writer and social producer for PS. She writes across all verticals, but her main areas of expertise focus on fashion and beauty content with an emphasis on reviews and editor experiments. She also produces social content for the PS TikTok and Instagram accounts.