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Chemical vs. physical sunscreens: unravelling the sunscreen conundrum

Chemical vs. physical sunscreens: unravelling the sunscreen conundrum

Choosing the right sunscreen is crucial for safeguarding your skin against the harmful effects of the sun's ultraviolet (UV) rays. With an array of options available, it can he helpful to understand the key differences between chemical and physical sunscreens. In this article, we'll delve into a little science behind these two types of sunscreen, helping you to make an informed decision for your skin's health and protection. Our main goal for this post is to help you find what you need and what you're most likely to use regularly. 

What are chemical sunscreens?

Chemical sunscreens do exactly what they say on the tin.

Organic, carbon-based, chemical filters rub in and ‘bind’ to the skin. The chemical filters work by absorbing UV rays before they penetrate the skin, creating a chemical reaction when exposed to sunlight. This reaction converts UV radiation into heat, effectively reducing the amount of UV radiation that reaches the deeper layers of your skin.

The Science behind Physical Sunscreens

Physical sunscreens, also known as mineral sunscreens, act as a physical barrier between your skin and the sun. They contain mineral ingredients like titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, which form a protective layer on the skin's surface.

Physical sunscreens also absorb UV light in the same way as chemical sunscreens and, as suggested by the name, they also deflect and scatter a small amount of UV rays, preventing them from penetrating your skin, like a mirror.

Physical sunscreens are often thick, chalky and heavy although this is improving. This is the sunscreen-cum-war-paint you would commonly see sportsmen wearing, such as Australian cricketers.

Main features of chemical sunscreens

  1. Lightweight and invisible: Chemical sunscreens tend to have a lighter and sometimes clear texture, making them easier to apply and blend into the skin. They are often available in various formulations, including lotions, gels, and sprays, providing versatility and convenience for everyday use. 
  2. Protection level: While SPF 50+ protection is common for both, this is a measure of protection against UVB only. Broad spectrum protection (protection from both UVA and UVB) tends to be higher in chemical sunscreens, particularly with the filters we choose to use (more on this later). 

Main features of physical sunscreens

  1. White cast: Physical sunscreens are white, especially if they contain titanium dioxide, and there's not much getting away from that unless the formulations are mixed with pigment (read: make-up) to better match your skin tone. 
  2. Can be gentler on sensitive skin: Individuals with sensitive or reactive skin often find physical sunscreens more tolerable, as they have a lower risk of causing irritation or allergic reactions. The mineral-based ingredients provide a natural and gentle barrier without the need for additional chemicals.

How to tell the difference?

Typically on packaging, brands don’t say whether they use physical or chemical barriers because people aren’t as educated as you are now.

The easiest way to tell is often by elimination. If the ingredients on the back contain titanium dioxide or zinc oxide, it’s physical. Everything else is chemical.

Making the right choice

The right choice in our mind is finding a product that you'll always use because that means your skin is protected from UV, reducing your chances of skin damage and maximising your own skin health.

So, choosing between a chemical and physical sunscreen is personal and can depend on things like your skin type and what you're doing. It if helps, you may wish to consider the following factors when making your decision:

  • Cosmetic appeal: If you prefer a lightweight, almost invisible feel, chemical sunscreens still offer a more pleasing cosmetic experience even with the advancements in formulation and ingredient technology.
  • Skin sensitivity: If you have very sensitive or reactive skin, physical or hybrid sunscreens might be a better option. 
  • Water activities: If you enjoy swimming or take part in water sports, a water-resistant chemical sunscreen or a heavy, robust physical sunscreen could be your ideal choice.
  • Activity type: If you're active and sweating, chemical sunscreens tend to offer longer protection as physical sunscreens can rinse off. This is exacerbated because physical sunscreen creates a barrier that can result in increased perspiration.

What does LifeJacket use?

LifeJacket Skin Protection products use both technologies across our range and in some instances, we use a hybrid of both. We recognise you have different use cases or preferences and that skin types can vary. 

Given our brand mission to halt the increase in skin cancer, the world's most common cancer and one that's 90% preventable, we recognise the need to develop products you won’t think twice about using. We wanted to remove the barriers of conventional sunscreens.

This means we make Sun Gels that rub in effortlessly: no hair or clogging issues, quick-drying and no greasy-feel. It's impossible to achieve that with 100% physical sunscreens as we discovered in the lab after years of trying. That's why our Sun Gels (and SPF moisturisers) use a hybrid of chemical and mineral UV filters because we think it achieves the best of both worlds. 

Our SPF 50+ Mineral Sun Protection Stick is 100% mineral and our SPF 50+ Sun Protection Spray is 100% chemical. Different needs for different strokes that (hopefully) you now understand.


Understanding the distinctions between chemical and physical sunscreens will help you make an informed decision for your skin protection needs. Both types have their unique advantages, and the right choice ultimately depends on your individual needs and preferences. Remember, regardless of the type of sunscreen you choose, regular application (and re-application) as well as proper sun protection practices are essential for maintaining healthy, damage-free skin.