Should I Use a Physical or Chemical Sunscreen?

It’s easy to see the SPF and UV labels on the front of a sunscreen bottle and believe that’s all the information necessary for an informed purchase. But it’s not the full picture.

For a different perspective, turn the sunblock around and take a look at the ingredients. The list has some chemical names, but it only takes a few simple tips to understand what it means, and if that type of sunscreen is right for you.

Sunscreen works using one of two mechanisms: physical or chemical protection. Physical sunscreen, also called mineral sunscreen, functions like a mirror deflecting the sun's rays off of the skin. Chemical sunscreens soak up UV rays like a sponge, preventing the skin from absorbing them.

Physical vs. Chemical Sunscreens Pros and Cons

Because each type has different benefits, your priorities can determine your sunscreen selection.

Physical sunscreen:


  • Considered hypoallergenic, and more gentle on the skin of newborns
  • Ingredients aren’t absorbed into the skin as much as with chemical sunscreens
  • Typically less expensive
  • More reef safe and sustainable for the environment


  •  More prone to user error. Physical sunscreen usually remains visible on the skin after application (sometimes referred to as ‘white cast’). Many people shy away from applying enough to provide full sun protection benefits

Chemical sunscreen:


  • Doesn’t rub off as easily
  • More comprehensive UVA/UVB protection
  • Increased resistance to sweat and water


  • May cause skin sensitivity and watery eyes

After looking at both sets of pros and cons, it may also take some trial and error to find your preferred formula. Experiment with sunscreen to find one that works with your lifestyle. The best sunscreen is the one that you’ll use!

Ingredient Overview

Sunblock labels usually list the active ingredients on the top portion of the back of the bottle. Many sunscreens use multiple actives in their formulations to achieve maximum results.

Here’s how to identify whether a product is a chemical vs. physical sunscreen.

Chemical Sunscreens

A chemical sunscreen ingredient list will include:

  • Ingredients starting with ‘oct-’ or ‘oxy-’, like oxybenzone or octocrylene
  • Ingredients ending with
  • salate’ like octisalate or homosalate

Bonus tip: Check your chemical sunscreen for a ‘non-comedogenic’ label, meaning it’s less likely to clog the pores and cause acne.

Physical Sunscreens

Common physical sunscreen ingredients include:

  • Zinc oxide
  • Titanium dioxide

Bonus tip: To get the full scope of environmental benefits, check that the label of your physical/mineral sunscreen says it’s ‘non-nano’. This means it’s more biodegradable, reef-safe, and environmentally friendly.

The Bottom Line

No matter your preference between physical vs. chemical sunscreen, any sunscreen is better than none. When selecting a sunscreen, choose a broad-spectrum product to block both UVA and UVB rays, and opt for SPF 30 or higher. The most effective first line of defense is always UV protective clothing and avoiding unnecessary sun exposure.

UV Skinz has sun-safe UPF 50+ clothing and accessories that will add a protective layer no matter which sunscreen you choose!