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Chemical Sunscreen vs. Physical Sunscreen – What’s the Difference?

Sunscreen with the caption "Chemical versus physical sunscreens. What's right for you"

It’s no secret that sunscreen offers the best protection against skin cancer next to staying out of the sun altogether or covering up with sun protective clothing. However, most people don’t realize that the kind of sunscreen we use is also important.

There are two main kinds of sunscreen: chemical sunscreen and physical sunscreen. First, let’s take a look at how sunscreen works.

How Sunscreen Works


A sunscreen is a compound (or lotion) that uses agents to block, deflect or reflect the sun’s rays.

To be effective, it’s recommended that all sunscreens be liberally applied (at least an ounce for the entire body) to all exposed areas of the body.

Chemical Sunscreen vs. Physical Sunscreen

Chemical sunscreens use up to a dozen ingredients that, when applied, are absorbed in the top layer of skin. They react with the skin to absorb UV rays and convert them into energy before they can harm the skin.

Chemical sunscreens aren’t as thick as physical sunscreens, so they are often used in sunscreens specifically made for the face as well as those found in spray bottles. Since chemical sunscreens need to be absorbed into the skin, they must be applied at least 20 to 30 minutes before heading outdoors.

Physical sunscreens, sometimes called “natural” sunscreens, include two ingredients: zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. Together, these ingredients sit on top of the skin and deflect or reflect the sun’s rays. Think of physical sunscreens like a shield, while chemical sunscreens are absorbed into the skin. Both ingredients work well to protect from UVA and UVB (broad spectrum) rays. Since physical sunscreens are thicker, they can leave a white cast on the skin.

Which sunscreen is right for me?

Those with sensitive skin, or are young children, may opt for a physical sunscreen since those ingredients are milder. However, if you are darker skinned, you may opt for a chemical sunscreen, as those do not leave a white cast.

Both types of sunscreen provide adequate protection, however your personal preference may help you decide what type of sunscreen is right for you.

The most important thing to remember is to choose a sunscreen you will use.

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The Focus on Cancer blog discusses a variety of cancer-related topics, including treatment advances, research efforts and clinical trials, nutrition, support groups, survivorship and patient stories.

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