Skin Saving Secrets: Choosing Your Perfect Sunscreen. Part I: Physical vs. Chemical Sunscreen

For years, I considered sunscreen with a mix of skepticism and nonchalance. Growing up in the Netherlands I always believed that my colored skin did not need protection from the sun. However, it was during a summer trip to the beach with friends that I had my awakening. I skipped applying sunscreen, convinced that my skin could handle the sun’s intensity. Hours passed, and I enjoyed the warmth of the sun on my skin, only to find myself sunburned later that evening.


Despite of the weather forecast, sunscreen must be part of your daily skincare routine, before you head outdoors. But the options and varieties are enormous: Physical or Chemical Sunscreen? A lotion or a spray? A separate sunscreen or a 2-in-1 moisturizer containing SPF? How can you decide which suncream is the most suitable for your skin? Let’s start with some basic questions.


The sun emits different types of radiations, including infrared (IR), visible and Ultra-Violet (UV) radiation. UV radiation consists of three types of waves of different wave-lengths: UV-A (320-400 nm), UV-B (280-320 nm)and UV-C (100-290 nm) radiation. While UV-C radiations are completely absorbed by the stratospheric ozon, UV-A and UV-B radiations pass through the layer. And these are the UV-radiations that damage your skin. Hence, you want to protect your skin from the damaging effects of this UV-radiation. But how?


Sunscreen protects the skin from the powerful UV-radiations, minimizing the risk of painful sunburn, skin cancer, dark spots and wrinkles. Sunscreens protect our skin basically through two methods: absorption and reflection. While some ingredients in sunscreen absorb UV-A and UV-B (chemical filters) , others reflect these radiations (physical filters). However, it is important to keep in mind that no sunscreen can protect 100% from UV-radiation. Therefore, re-applying sunscreen every 2 hours, avoiding the sun between 10 a.m.-4 p.m. and wear sun glasses to protect (the skin around) your eyes is essential. At the same time, we need to get enough sun for our physical and mental health.


Physical sunscreen. Physical sunscreens contain fine particles of minerals that upon application remain on the skin surface. From here, they reflect and scatter UV-radiation before they penetrate your skin. The most common ingredients in physical sunscreens are zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. And interestingly, these are the only two ingredients in sunscreen that are proven 100% safe. A typical characteristic of physical sunscreens is that they have are thicker and white consistency compared to chemical sunscreens. Consequently, this makes physical sunscreens easier for ensuring that your skin is completely covered and protected. On the other hand, the thicker consistency makes physical sunscreens less suitable for oily or acne-prone skin. In addition, minerals alone often offer less protection from damaging UV-A radiation than chemical filters. Therefore, most sunscreens that you will find at the drugstore are chemical sunscreens.

Chemical Sunscreens. The majority of commercial sunscreens are chemical sunscreens. Chemical sunscreens contain chemical ingredients that absorb radiation. The most common ingredients are oxybenzone, octinoxate, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate and avobenzone. While chemical filters are more effective in protection against in particular UV-A radiation, recent research has raised concerns. Unlike physical filters, chemical filters enter our blood stream through our skin, even after one use only. In addition, recent studies detected sunscreen ingredients in breast milk and urine samples [1,2]. On top of this, it is possible for users to inhale ingredients through sunscreen sprays. While the consequences of sunscreen ingredients entering our body are not clear, there is one particular issue that worries some researchers: the endocrine disrupting properties of UV filters [3].


Endocrine disruptors are chemicals that interfere with our hormones. In particular, oxybenzone has gained negative attention lately [4]. While the constant exposure to sunscreen chemicals raises concern among health authorities, data on safety, concentration limits and adverse health effects on humans are limited. Because most research that has been done on UV-filters used mice. And it is important to note that conclusions drawn from animal studies cannot be directly applied to humans. For example, researchers calculated that a woman would have to apply sunscreen daily for 34-277 years to achieve the same amount of oxybenzone that was administered to rats in one study! [5].


Based on the current data, the adverse effects of UV-radiation far exceeds the potential (long-term) risks of UV-filters. Therefore, it remains key to use sunscreen to protect your skin from the damaging sun radiation. While there is some concern about chemical filters entering your body, there is no clear scientific evidence that they cause damage to our health. However, if you prefer to be on the safe side, you can opt for a sunscreen that does not contain oxybenzone. I use dr. Leenarts’s Suncare products, that don’t contain oxybezone and are suitable for a sensitive skin.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *