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You likely already know the role sunscreen plays in your skin care routine. Sunscreen helps protect you from overexposure to the sun’s damaging rays, which can contribute to fine lines and wrinkles, signs of premature aging, and skin cancer.

As a matter of fact, regular use of a broad-spectrum (UVA and UVB coverage) sunscreen has been shown to reduce the risk of nonmelanoma skin cancer and melanoma, the most aggressive form of skin cancer, says Nana Duffy, MD, FAAD.

But when choosing a sunscreen, you have a few decisions to make.

First, are you slathering up with a physical or chemical sunscreen? Does it even matter which one you use? Well, it might.

The key difference between these types of sunscreens lies in how they block rays. Physical (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.

There are pros and cons to both, which we’ll cover below. Sunscreen itself is nonnegotiable, of course, but we’ve got all the info you need to choose the best option for your sun protection needs.

Physical sunscreens, more commonly known as mineral sunscreens, work by creating a physical barrier on the skin that shields it from the sun’s rays.

These sunscreens deliver broad-spectrum protection by reflecting UV radiation away from your skin. They also help ward off UVA-related skin damage, including hyperpigmentation and wrinkles.

Mineral sunscreens can also help block UVA rays that come through windows, which can cause pigmentation and breakdown of collagen. That’s why it’s important to wear sunscreen every day, even if you don’t plan to go outside.

Most mineral sunscreens are formulated with zinc oxide and titanium oxide, two ingredients recognized as safe and effective by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Micronized zinc oxide or titanium sunscreens — or those with very small particles — work much like chemical sunscreens by absorbing UV rays.

“Zinc oxide sunscreens are often recommended for people with skin sensitivities, including acne, and are gentle enough to use on children,” says Elizabeth Hale, MD, board certified dermatologist and a vice president of the Skin Cancer Foundation.

“They also offer the most broad-spectrum protection (against both UVA and UVB rays) and are widely recommended for those that apply sunscreen to their face and neck daily, as they work to prevent year-round UVA damage including wrinkles, brown spots, and photoaging,” she says.

All benefits, for sure, but mineral sunscreens do have one downside: They can be chalky, difficult to spread, and — most glaringly — tend to leave behind a noticeable white cast to the skin. If you have a darker complexion, this whitish cast can be especially apparent.

Tip: Avoid a ghostly face by opting for newer formulas with tinted zinc oxide.

Mineral sunscreens also aren’t always as water resistant as chemical options, so you may need to be more diligent about reapplication.

Mineral sunscreens are available in formulas designed for both the face and body.

For the face

For the body

Chemical sunscreens don’t sit on the skin or block rays. Instead, they feature active ingredients that absorb UV rays before your skin can soak them up. These chemical UV filters include:

  • oxybenzone
  • avobenzone
  • octisalate
  • octocrylene
  • homosalate
  • octinoxate

“In most cases, chemical sunscreens do not leave a visible film layer on the skin, which makes them easier to wear on a broader range of skin tones,” says Hale.

She goes on to explain that most of her clients actually prefer chemical sunscreens, simply because they’re easier to apply and wear.

Because they’re designed for absorption, chemical sunscreens tend to go on smoothly without feeling sticky or greasy, and they don’t leave the telltale white cast.

Are chemical sunscreens safe?

Much of the debate about chemical sunscreens relates to the ingredients themselves. The same ingredients that absorb so well may pose health concerns.

In 2019, the FDA proposed rules and regulations intended to update sunscreen requirements.

The agency hasn’t yet found evidence that the majority of sunscreen chemicals can cause harmful side effects. That said, the FDA has banned two sunscreen ingredients:

  • aminobenzoic acid (PABA)
  • trolamine salicylate

The FDA continues to work with researchers to evaluate the safety of active sunscreen ingredients beyond zinc oxide and titanium dioxide.

A 2020 study found that 6 of 12 active ingredients currently under study by the FDA enter the bloodstream after just one application. These ingredients remain detectable in the blood and on the skin up to 3 weeks later — at concentrations passing the threshold where the FDA considered waiving additional safety trials.

The study authors emphasize the need for more research, but they also note their findings don’t suggest you should skip sunscreen.

While some have expressed concerns that certain chemicals in sunscreen, particularly oxybenzone and octinoxate, might disrupt certain endocrine functions, recent research hasn’t found conclusive evidence of adverse health outcomes related to sunscreen.

Experts recommend wearing sunscreen daily.

Another potential drawback of chemical sunscreens: People with sensitive skin may experience an unwanted reaction, like redness or inflammation. Some ingredients could exacerbate skin conditions like rosacea or melasma.

Check out our guides to the best sunscreens for rosacea-prone or sensitive skin.

Like mineral formulas, chemical sunscreens are available in a range of SPFs and options.

For the face

For the body

  • Supergoop Play Everyday Lotion SPF 50. This sunscreen is made to be hydrating, fast-absorbing, and resistant to water and sweat for 80 minutes.
  • Bask Broad Spectrum SPF 30 Lotion. This cruelty-free, vegan sunscreen is reef-safe and free of parabens and sulfates. Its lightweight formula is also designed to go on sheer, without leaving a white cast or sticky feel.

In the physical versus chemical sunscreen showdown, there’s no clear winner.

“The most effective sunscreen is the one you will you use,” says Duffy. She notes that people are particular about the way a sunscreen feels and smells, but the most important thing remains wearing one consistently.

Still, people with sensitive skin will likely do better with a physical sunscreen, since it poses a lower risk of irritating your skin.

Is sunscreen bad for the environment?

Some of the active ingredients in chemical sunscreens — notably oxybenzone, octocrylene, and octinoxate — have been associated with dying coral reefs.

Coral reefs can also absorb nanoparticles, or very tiny particles, from sunscreens, regardless of ingredients.

If eco-friendliness is a requirement for your sunscreens, your best bet is a mineral sunscreen that’s explicitly labeled as containing no nanoparticles. This typically means choosing a lotion over a mist or spray.

Prefer a chemical sunscreen? Check the label and steer clear of any formulas with oxybenzone, octocrylene, and octinoxate.

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“More Americans are diagnosed with skin cancer than all other types of cancer combined,” says Duffy.

Sun protection, in short, is an everyday essential — even in the winter, on cloudy days, or days you don’t go outside. That said, sunscreen isn’t the only way to protect your skin from the sun:

  • Clothing. Cover your skin with long-sleeved tops and pants, and don’t forget a wide-brimmed hat to shield your face and neck. You can shop for UV-resistant or UV-protective clothing, but anything with a tight knit will offer protection.
  • Timing. Peak sunshine hours are between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Aim to spend time outdoors before or after this period whenever possible, and make a point of staying in the shade when you can.
  • Avoid UV lights. Yes, including tanning beds and sunlamps.

When it comes to sunscreen, you have options.

Both physical and chemical sunscreens come with pros and cons, and choosing the right sunscreen might involve some compromise. Whichever you settle on, make sure you don’t skip it. Sunscreen is the best way to reduce your chances of sun-related skin damage.

Jessica Timmons has been working as a freelance writer since 2007, covering everything from pregnancy and parenting to cannabis, chiropractic, stand-up paddling, fitness, martial arts, home decor, and much more. Her work has appeared in mindbodygreen, Pregnancy & Newborn, Modern Parents Messy Kids, and Coffee + Crumbs. See what she’s up to now at