What’s the Difference Between Physical & Chemical Sunscreen? Here's Everything You Need to Know

What’s the Difference Between Physical & Chemical Sunscreen? Here's Everything You Need to Know
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Beauty editors worth their blowouts are often preaching the virtues of year-round SPF protection; nearly every anti-aging story we write recommends consistent application to prevent sun damage and aging. Most dermatologists recommend using a broad-spectrum formula with SPF 30+ on the daily—but you’ll still have the dilemma of whether to pick a physical or chemical sunscreen. If you’ve been left wondering what the difference is between the two, here’s your primer:

Chemical Sunscreens
These formulas require a little more patience, as they need to be applied 30 minutes prior to sun exposure to allow for absorption. Active ingredients like avobenzone, octinoxate and mexoryl then absorb the sun’s rays and neutralizes them. Think of it like this: “Chemical sunscreens acts like a sponge while the physical sunscreens acts like a wall,” says N.Y.C. dermatologist Tabasum Mir, M.D. Since chemical varieties are available in a myriad of varieties (like aerosol sprays, lotions, and sticks), they’re usually easier to apply—but can sometime cause irritation for sensitive skin types. Since the sun can break down their effectiveness over time, it’s important to reapply throughout the day. Mir recommends La Roche Posay’s Anthelios ($35; amazon.com)

RELATED: Editor-Tested: Supergoop Mist

Physical Sunscreens
These mineral-based formulas provide instant protection upon application. "They usually contain ingredients like titanium dioxide or zinc oxide, which sit on the surface of the skin and bounce the sun’s rays off skin, reflecting light back into the environment,” says San Diego dermatologist Melanie Palm, M.D. While mineral formulas tend to be anti-inflammatory and are less likely to irritate skin, they can often appear chalky and ashy (especially against darker skin tones) and can be harder to apply. We love Avène’s Ultra Light Lotion ($28; drugstore.com), which glides on easily and absorbs into skin without leaving any discoloration (physical formulas are applied last, over other skincare and makeup). Since they can wear off with activity (like swimming and sweating), its important to reapply often if you’re out in the elements. But for general wear (like an office job), you may only need to reapply two times a day, since the formula is more likely to stay intact. Prone to dark spots? Stick to mineral formula “which are less likely to cause inflammation that leads to melasma and pigmentation," says Palm.

Now that you've breezed through Sunscreen 101, know that regardless of which you choose, just make sure to find a version you really like—because actually using it is the biggest factor.
 
 
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