Chemical vs physical sunscreen: Which one is right for you?

Protecting your skin shouldn't be confusing.
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Summer is here, that means it’s well and truly time to invest in a good quality sunscreen. But are you confused about the difference between a physical sunscreen and a chemical sunscreen?

Protecting your skin doesn’t need to be complicated, so here we break down the difference in the two sunscreens.

Chemical or physical: What’s the difference?

Sunscreens can be physical, chemical or a hybrid of both.

“Physical sunscreens sit on the skin’s surface and reflect UV rays whereas chemical sunscreens absorb UV rays,” explains Emma Hobson, education manager at The International Dermal Institute.

“One does not outperform the other so it’s a personal choice.”

Before you head to the shops to stock up on sun protection, find out which sunscreen will be the most suitable for your skin type.

Chemical sunscreen

The most common, with a melt-into-your-skin texture, so they’re great for daily use.

They can irritate sensitive skin as they combine many ingredients to achieve broad-spectrum protection. They take 20 minutes to sink in and start working.

Label lookout: If it doesn’t say non-chemical or mineral, it’s likely to be a chemical sunscreen.

Physical sunscreen

Contain natural zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide to shield skin from UV rays. Start working immediately and don’t usually irritate skin because they sit on the skin’s surface.

Can feel thicker on the skin, block pores and cause breakouts, so look for the ‘non-comedogenic’ variety. To make physical sunscreens feel better and avoid the ‘ghosting’ effect, some products use nano-sized articles of zinc oxide and titanium oxide.

There are concerns about how much of these particles are absorbed into the skin. According to Hobson, the jury’s still out on long-term safety.

“But I believe when it comes to sunscreen, the micro-particle sizes of ingredients like titanium dioxide are too ‘big’ to warrant concern.”

If you want to avoid nanoparticles, skip sunscreens with descriptions like micro-mineral, ultra-fine or micronised.

Label lookout: Will be labelled sunblock, mineral, zinc, or non-chemical.

When to use sunscreen

You need sun protection whenever UV levels are 3 or above, says Vanessa Rock, chair of the National Skin Cancer Committee, Cancer Council Australia.

“Apply sunscreen 20 minutes before heading into the sun and reapply every two hours or after swimming,” she says.

To find the daily UV index, check your local weather information.

How much sunscreen should you apply

It’s important to apply enough sunscreen for proper protection.

“The average adult should apply at least a teaspoon for each limb, front and back of the body and half a teaspoon for face, neck and ears,” says Rock.

She also recommends protective clothing, a broad-brimmed hat, sunglasses and seeking shade when UV levels are 3 and above.

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