Vogue’s guide to choosing between physical and chemical sunscreens based on skin type

Whether to apply sunscreen or sunblock is the ultimate dilemma for experts and skincare aficionados alike. The importance of sunscreen has been widely debated across the world, however the real question that you should be asking is whether to choose a physical or chemical sunscreen. While physical sunscreens do score in terms of being a gentler formulation, chemical sunscreens have their benefits too. Ahead, Vogue bring you its ultimate guide to picking between physical and chemical sunscreen.

What’s the difference between physical and chemical sunscreen?

The critical difference between these types of sunscreens lies in how they block rays. Physical sunscreen creates a physical barrier to UV rays while chemical filters absorb and scatter the spectrum, hence the original name, sunblock. “Physical or mineral sunscreens sit on the surface of your skin and act as a shield, while chemical sunscreens sink into your skin and act more like a sponge,” says Dr Pankaj Chaturvedi, MD, Dermatologist & Co-Founder, MedLinks, New Delhi.

“Physical Sunscreen tends to be heavier and can leave a whitish residue; this looks stark on Indian skin tones. Though it acts instantly, it needs to be reapplied frequently. Chemical sunscreen lasts longer but needs to be applied 20 mins before stepping into the sun.” weighs in Dr Chytra Anand, Bangalore-based Dermatologist and founder of Kosmoderma Skin & Hair Clinics. She advises a test patch of chemical sunscreen for sensitive skin and acne-prone skin types.

Physical sunscreen, despite its benefits, has been a heavier formulation than its chemical counterpart. “It is moisturising, but at the same time difficult to fully blend into the skin,” says Dr Chaturvedi. But this concern is addressed by new-age formulations, which offer matte and tinted versions of physical sunblock which have less of a white cast than ever before and can give the skin a smooth, even appearance.

How to figure out the difference?

As a consumer, how does one distinguish between chemical and physical sunscreen? One of the cues lies in reading labels. “Look for terms such as mineral sunscreen or best is to read the labels and watch out for the ingredients. If you see Zinc Oxide and Titanium Dioxide as leading ingredients, then it is a physical sunscreen. If avobenzone, oxybenzone, octinoxate, tinosorb, etc mentioned, they are chemical sunscreens,” recommends Dr Chaturvedi.

Who should use a physical sunblock?

Anyone can use a physical sunblock as it tends to be less irritating. “Mineral sunscreen offers the most broad-spectrum protection (against both UVA and UVB rays) and is widely recommended to prevent year-round UVA damage, including wrinkles, brown spots, and photoaging. It’s a better texture fit for sensitive and acne-prone skin,” he adds.

Talking about zinc oxide, Prasanthy Gurugubelli, a clean beauty formulator, and founder of beauty brand Daughter Earth, says, “Zinc Oxide, one of the primary components of physical sunscreen has anti-inflammatory benefits. It is gentle to use, and that’s why it finds its way to even baby products such as diaper rash creams. Zinc oxide is called yashad bhasma in Ayurveda and has been used for acne, eczema and psoriasis.” If you have sensitive, acne-prone, switching to physical sunblocks will improve your skin’s texture and appearance. Additionally, for kids, mineral sunscreens are much safer formulations.

Who could avoid physical sunblock?

“Colour match to the skin tone is the most significant concern in physical sunscreen. They often leave a white film-like residue on the skin,” adds Dr Chytra. You should look for chemical sunscreen if you need a water-resistant formula. For instance, if you are going swimming, it’s better to use chemical sunscreen. “Similarly, if you play sports or sweat a lot during the day, you will find chemical sunscreen more effective,” adds Dr Chaturvedi. Conventionally, chemical sunscreen is easier to be absorbed into the skin and is often preferred by those who want a fuss-free application that’s seamless in their morning skincare routine.

This article first appeared in Vogue


  • Aparrna Gupta

    Transitioning from crafting stories for The Asian Age and Bombay Times to setting beauty trends in Verve, Aparrna Gupta’s journey has always revolved around resonant storytelling. Her prowess in content creation is unparalleled, with articles featured in renowned publications like Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, L’Officiel India, Lifestyle Asia, Elle, and Femina. She also excels in content ideation, trend identification, mood board creation, and product styling. Her expertise has proven invaluable to homegrown brands, enabling them to authentically connect with their audience.

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