Chemical SPF vs. Physical SPF: What’s the difference?

Chemical sun protection is known as sunscreen and only blocks UVB rays, these chemicals can also be irritating to your skin. Physical sunblock, also known as Mineral or Broad-Spectrum sunblock, protect from UVA and UVB rays and is better for your skin.
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What Everyone Should Know About Sun Protection

Like most Estheticians, I prioritize sunblock as the first product I make sure that my clients are using as a part of their daily skincare regimen. As the weather becomes warmer and there is more free time in abundance right now, it is likely many of us are spending more time in the sun. According to scientific studies regarding sun exposure, at least 80% of the signs of aging are caused by the sun. We all know we should be wearing sunscreen on a daily basis, but many of my clients are unclear on what type of sun protection they should be using, how often to apply and even how much to apply.  I want to share with you how sunscreen and sunblock are vastly different, and some application tips to protect your skin from the alluring yet damaging sun.

Chemical versus Physical

Despite the booming sun care market, skin cancer is increasing in prevalence. It’s not that sun protection products don’t work, it is that we are not educated on the proper products we need and how to adequately use them. When it comes to sun protection you have two options, there are either chemical or physical formulations.

Chemical sun protection is known as sunscreen; the chemicals in sunscreen absorb the UVB rays, which is how it protects you from sunburns. However, these chemicals can be harmful and irritating to both your skin and even your body. There are chemicals found in chemical sunscreen that are known hormone and endocrine disruptors. Not to mention, most sunscreens do not protect against UVA rays which are the rays that can penetrate deep into the skin and are responsible for aging, as well as the formation of skin cancer.

On the other hand, there is physical sun protection known as sunblock. Sunblock literally does just that. It is broad-spectrum meaning it blocks both UVA and UVB rays from penetrating the skin, protecting against both signs of aging and sunburns. Taking all of that into consideration, as an esthetician I do recommend a physical sunblock (aka mineral or broad-spectrum sunblock) over a chemical sunscreen. I especially recommend going with a physical sunblock if you have sensitive skin conditions like rosacea, are pregnant, or have underlying health conditions. 

Ingredients Matter

As we want to be mindful of all skincare product ingredients we are using on our skin, sun protection is no exception. The ingredients of a broad spectrum physical sunblock will be 100% mineral.  These ingredients include Titanium Dioxide and Zinc Oxide only. The ingredients that you want to avoid in a chemical sunscreen include and are certainly not limited to; avobenzone, benzophenone, octinoxate, octisalate and more. Also, with any skincare including sun protection, you will want to avoid fragrance, phthalates, Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) or Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES) and anything ending in –paraben or –glycol. Although all of these ingredients are approved by the Food and Drug Administration, there are known toxic effects associated with all of them. Another important thing to note is how the ingredients in chemical sunscreen are also harmful to the environment and are contributing to the detriment of our coral reefs. It’s best for all to stay away from these ingredients and it is easier to do so when choosing a physical or mineral sunblock.

Correct Application is Key

Physical sunblock can be more challenging to rub into the skin; according to Clean Beauty by Goop, this is how you know it’s good! I know the ease of application is a bonus of chemical sunscreen, but it is simply not as effective, and with the addition of potentially harmful ingredients, a little more effort in blending a sunblock into the skin is 100% worth it! Sunblock also lasts longer on the skin, and will not need to be reapplied as often as a chemical sunscreen. However, applying a sunblock every 2 hours when exposed to the sun is ideal for replenishing the product’s potency of protection. 

When applying a sun protection product, you need to be sure you are using enough. The SPF rating on a product is based on a full teaspoon amount. This means the less you apply the less protection you have on your skin. I recommend applying a nickel-sized amount on the face and if you are applying a full body application, you should be using about two tablespoons worth! When applying sunblock, take into consideration the areas of the skin in which will be exposed to the sun. In addition to the face, this may include backs of hands, ears, neck, and chest. An SPF of at least 30 is what I recommend, less than that is not enough protection from harmful sun rays, and more is not a substantial difference in protection. 

Layering your Sunscreen

When you apply your sunblock, it can depend on your preferences as well as your daily activities. I recommend applying sunblock in place of or on top of your moisturizer depending on how much moisture your skin needs. When applying on top of moisturizer, be sure to space the products a couple minutes apart to allow each product time to absorb. As for makeup, you can find a Tinted BB or CC cream that contains a broad-spectrum SPF. If you are going to be inside most of the day, that alone can suffice, but if you are spending the day outdoors (whether it is sunny or not) it is best to apply a true sunblock underneath your makeup even if it has SPF included. Remember to reapply if outside for long periods of time. Also, never forget the power of a hat for extra protection! 

For more on this topic and Clean Beauty in general, I highly recommend you read Goop’s book Clean Beauty! Our Estheticians here at Pomp can recommend a suitable sunblock based on your needs and preferences. Utilizing the tips and knowledge from this blog can help keep your skin safe from sun damage, sunburns, skin cancer, and also ensure that you are using sun protection that keeps both your skin and body’s best interest in mind. 

Nicole Hatfield
NBC HWC & Certified Esthetician, Founder of Radiant Beings Wellness & Beauty Coaching

One comment

  1. Super interesting. I guess I’ve been using the wrong type of sun screen for a long time. Going to try out physical SPF and see how it goes. Thanks!

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