Physical vs. Chemical Sunscreens: Get Sun-Smart

Get in the know about sun protection so you can emerge from summer without a tomato-tinge.

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Physical vs. Chemical Sunscreens: Get Sun-Smart

Chances are you didn’t even know that there were different types of sunscreen. But never fear, I’m here to bring you the gift of knowledge to help you choose a form of sun protection that’ll ensure the sun’s savage rays don’t make your skin sunburnt and saggy.

How Do Physical Sunscreens Work?

Physical sunscreens include mineral ingredients in their formulas, unlike chemical sunscreens, with the most common mineral compounds you’ll come across being titanium dioxide and zinc oxide. These guys basically set up camp on the surface of your skin and bounce the sun’s UVA (ageing) and UVB (burning) rays off it, like a little shield. For a little while, there were concerns that the nanoparticles contained in these guys caused free radical damage, but research has proven them completely safe.

What About Chemical Sunscreens?

On the other hand, chemical sunscreen formulas contain carbon-based, organic chemical compounds, of which the most common (and hard to pronounce) types include avobenzone, oxybenzone, octinoxate and homosalate. Chemical sunscreens actually sink into the top layers of your skin as opposed to sitting on top of them, and protect them by doing an ‘abracadabra’ move and transforming UVA and UVB rays into heat, them kicking that heat out from your skin. The one thing to watch out for with chemical formulations is that some water-resistant sunscreens can damage coral, so make sure you find one that’s reef-friendly.

So Which One Should I Use?

It depends on your skin type, which skin expert and esthetician Renée Rouleau gives us some guidance on. If you’ve got a deeper skin tone, are doing a lot of physical activity or wanting to wear makeup, physical sunscreen may be a no go for you. If you’re worried about existing hyperpigmentation and dark spots, have sensitive skin or rosacea or don’t want to reapply as often, chemical sunscreen isn’t your best option. Regardless of your choice, make sure it’s SPF50 and make sure it has an ‘AUST L’ certification.


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Elli Murphy is a Law/Arts student, born and bred in Melbourne, with a passion for creative communication/media, politics and policy change. Her overt childhood confidence first led her to journalism after discovering that acting wasn’t the only way to get in front of a camera. While a camera is not now vital to her plans, she aims to work towards a career in media presenting and long-form writing. Her hobbies include cooing over dogs, chocolate-eating, podcast-listening and cooking.