Physical Sunscreens vs. Chemical Sunscreens: Which Should You Use?

Stacy Selby
3 min readMay 10, 2019

Many people are unaware that there are two different “types” of sunscreens out there. That makes sense, because there are also a myriad of brands and price points to choose from. Navigating all of the information regarding which sunscreens are the safest can be a daunting task. As a nanny, I’m passionate about keeping the kids I watch safe, and choosing the right sunscreen for them is part of that. But why should we only be careful when it comes to kids?

There is research supporting the claim that many chemical sunscreens are killing coral reefs and harming our environment. Yet we continue using these ingredients on our skin, where it is absorbed into our bloodstreams. We don’t have to do that anymore.

So, what’s the difference between chemical and physical sunscreen?

Physical sunscreens are composed of ingredients, such as zinc oxide, that sit on top of the skin and reflect the sun’s harmful rays. Remember when athletes used to slather florescent zinc sunblock on their faces? That’s physical sunscreen, but it’s evolved quite a bit since the eighties. These products aren’t absorbed into the derma; this means they don’t harm the wearer (but they also need to be reapplied often). Because physical sunscreens don’t absorb, they are also non-comedogenic, which means they don’t clog pores (although they need to be washed off). Many brands make physical sunscreens that effectively disappear without leaving the white residue that turned many people off from them in the first place.

Chemical sunscreens don’t reflect the sun’s harmful rays, but absorb them before they’re absorbed by your own skin. This means that the products themselves sink into your derma, which can lead to pore-clogging and acne, as well as the absorption of the chemical meant to protect your skin from damage. Additionally, these sunscreens can “heat up” your skin, causing brown spots to appear or become darker. I noticed this myself when I thought I was using a physical sunscreen and, after examining the bottle, found out it also contained chemicals. The brown spots have since gotten lighter, once I stopped using the chemicals.

Many sunscreens are a mixture of physical and chemical sunblocks, but these mixtures still can have the negative effects of chemical sunscreens, both on you and the environment. In Hawaii, chemical sunscreens are banned altogether due to the havoc they’ve wreaked on coral reefs. Why would you want to put something like that on your skin?

This summer, do yourself and the environment a favor and switch to an earth-friendly physical sunscreen. There are a myriad of price points. Check the ingredients carefully and your skin and the earth will thank you!



Stacy Selby

Stacy Selby is currently writing a book about their experiences as a hotshot. They live in Seattle.