Physical vs Chemical Sunscreen – How to Choose the Best Sunscreen

Let’s talk about sunscreen. I’m going to go through the difference between physical and chemical sunscreen, tell you which one is my favorite and share my 3 absolute favorite brands (that do NOT leave a white residue on your skin).

Sunscreen is the #1 most important skincare rule there is. Sun damage is the leading cause of early signs of ageing and it can lead to skin cancer. I know some reasons a lot of people don’t like using it are that it can leave a white residue on your skin, sometimes you feel like it will clog your pores and it’s just another step to remember. I want to go through some of those details and help alleviate some of those issues.

Physical vs. Chemical


Active ingredients– titanium dioxide and zinc oxide

How it works– sits on your face and creates a PHYSICAL barrier from the sun to your skin

Waiting period– works right away; can go in the sun as soon as you put it on your skin

Disadvantages– can leave a bit of a chalky, white substance on your skin

Advantages– cleaner than chemical sunscreen; more broad spectrum


Active ingredients– oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octinoxate (sometimes octocrylene and homosalate)

How it works– creates a CHEMICAL reaction with the sun; when the UV rays hit your skin, the chemical sunscreen turns the rays into heat, and this heat is bounced off your skin

Waiting period– apply to your skin 15-20 minutes before you go out in the sun

Disadvantages– chemical sunscreen can interact with your hormones; not as clean; usually not as broad spectrum as SPF; If you suffer from melasma, hyperpigmentation or any kind of brown spots on your face, chemical can make this worse because heat (which chemical sunscreen creates) can induce or make melasma and hyperpigmentation worse

Advantages– much thinner, silkier consistency; great under makeup

Overall, I think physical is the way to go. Yes, it can leave a white substance on your skin, but I’m going to show you the brands that I like that do this the absolute least and some tricks you can do to prevent that. It’s better for your skin, and it’s better in terms of clean beauty.

Tips & Tricks

  • Radiance Platinum Vitamin E Oil. I love this- it’s drugstore brand and really affordable. This is a vegan vitamin E oil, and vitamin E in general is great for sun protection because it can actually make SPF stronger.

When I apply this with sunscreen, I know I’m getting a little more SPF benefit. I also like using this because applying an oil UNDER makes the chalkiness look less. I don’t recommend mixing them together because you don’t want to dilute the sunscreen. Because it’s a physical block, you want it to sit on the top of your skin.

  • Tinted Physical Sunscreen. Normally, I don’t like tinted lotions or anything because I’d rather have my makeup separate. Physical sunscreen is the exception because the tint can help offset that white look.

My Top 3 Sunscreens

  • Elta MD UV Physical Tinted Sunscreen. I absolutely love this brand – it’s so clean, it doesn’t clog your pores and you can tell it’s a medical-grade brand. This sunscreen is for extra sensitive and post-procedure skin, meaning it will not be irritating. It feels clean on your skin, which is hard to find in sunscreen.
  • bareMinerals Complexion Rescue Defense. bareMinerals is really big on protecting against blue light – the type of thing you get from your laptop or phone, which can also be damaging on your skin. (This one is not tinted.)
  • TIZO3 Minderal Tinted Sunscreen. This has a really nice finish. It’s like the opposite of oily …like a matte sunscreen. I would recommend this if you’re wearing makeup because it gives you this soft layer under your makeup.

Of course, sunscreen is super important to bring down to your neck, chest and even hands. I know this is very annoying, so I would recommend getting a sunscreen spray (a lot of these brands have them) because it’s so much easier when you’re running out the door.

If you take your showers in the morning, I recommend applying sunscreen before getting dressed.

Takeaways- definitely use physical sunscreen and a spray for your body, and vitamin E oil can be a great one to put under for extra sun protection.

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Written by

Mona Vand

Doctor of Pharmacy. Beauty, Health, & Wellness Q’s

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