Sun protection 101: Chemical vs Physical Sunscreens

Talk to any dermatologist and they’ll tell you that the humble sunscreen is your best friend when it comes to fighting sun damage, wrinkles and other signs of ageing. Not only are the sun’s rays (aka UV radiation) one of the biggest contributors to ageing skin, but the amount of UV radiation you’re exposed can also increased the rates of skin cancer.

There are three types of UV radiation, UVA, UVB and UVC. UVA radiation transmits pass the atmosphere and lingers freely on the earth’s surface. On the other hand, only 15% of UVB radiation passes through the ozone layer and comes into contact with our skin. Lastly, there is UVC which is fully absorbed by the earth’s ozone layer.

Although the sunscreen is one of the best ways to reduce your exposure to UVA and UVB radiation, what a lot of people don’t know is that not all sunscreens are created equal. Many will look at the SPF rating, but SPF only measures UVB – not UVA. If you want to ensure the full spectrum of UV radiation is covered, you should look out for sunscreens labelled “broad spectrum” which indicate they cover a sufficient amount of UVA and UVB.

All scientific data said and done, in the market right now, there are two two main types of sunscreens that you should know: chemical and physical sun protection.

Physical Sunscreens

Physical sunscreens are sunscreens that protect your skin by creating a physical barrier between your skin and the sun, either by blocking it or deflecting the suns rays. The two most common ingredients in physical sunscreens are zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, but may not protect against the full spectrum of UVA rays.

Physical sunscreens I like:

Invisible Zinc Tinted Light DayWear SPF30

Invisible Zinc didn’t win the 2010 Beauty Award for nothing – it offers excellent protection with zinc oxide and even has a light tint to it. Whilst I think it’s too heavy for daily use if you have combination or oily skin, it’s a solid option if you’re at the beach or on a boat. It is also free from parabens, fragrance, titanium dioxide and mineral oil with two colour shades to choose from: Medium and Light.

Elta MD Skincare UV Clear SPF46

This is one of the best physical sunscreens I’ve used (actually, it’s a mixed sunscreen – it’s got both physical and chemical ingredients, but for simplicity’s sake, let’s say it’s physical). Gives your skin a moisturiser and a healthy glow and best of all, it doesn’t leave a white cast on your face. It also contains ingredients that calms acne prone skin. Handy!

Chemical Sunscreens

Chemical sunscreens are sunscreens that use artificial ingredients as a main UV filter. They mostly work by either absorbing sun rays or scattering run rays. Most sunscreens in the market now are chemical sunscreens, since they are more cosmetically elegant than physical sunscreens and don’t have that tell-tale white streak. If it’s a chemical sunscreen, it’ll most likely include Avobenzone (which protects again the full spectrum of UVA rays), Oxybenzone and/or Homosalate. Chemical suncreens offer more coverage against UVA and UVA rays and there is no doubt that it is easier to apply as most formulations are easily blended.

Chemical sunscreens I like:

Le Tan Daily Face Sheer Tint 30+

A family favourite brand that many have grown up with in Australia, Le Tan gives us a lightweight and moisturising sunscreen that also has a slight tint. An affordable sunscreen / light coverage foundation, it has a decent matte finish with sheer coverage.

Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Dry-Touch Sunscreen

Easily a chemist favourite and something you can wear under a foundation for everyday use . This sunscreen with a SPF30+ is easy to apply and sinks into the skin for a smooth finish with its non-pore-clogging formula. The only con is that you’ll need a moisturiser under this.

What type of sun protection do you use and is it SPF15+, SPF30+ or higher?

A guest post by Arthur Chan, the sun protection-obessed editor of, a mens fashion and grooming blog.


  • Jen W says:

    Great post! I’m a firm believer in physical sunscreens,for their stability on the skin and UVA/UVB protection. I think these days there are great zinc sunscreens that do not give you the white cast- nano zinc is completely invisible and just as cosmetically elegant as chemical blockers.

    I tend to stay away from chemical sunscreens mainly because they break down in the presence of UV light within 1-2 hours, and many of them release free radicals as it does this. Oxybenzone is a notorious free radical generator and hormone disruptor.

    Sorry about the essay- this is why my friends don’t let me talk about sunscreen haha.

  • Andrea says:

    I kind of agree, to a certain extent. I have tried the really great branded, expensive stuff – and easy brands from stores like price line, however, and have found similar results – they’ve been great for my skin and protect me from the sun – I think the bottom line is that it’s good woman are becoming more aware that you do need to protect your skin somehow. I actually scored a really good set off a site called notanotherfuckingcoupon – they host some decent brands if you’re looking for THAT kind of stuff, and they’re really cheap too – if price is more of an option, and you don’t mind what you’re using. (Like me)

  • Tam says:

    At the end of the day Andrea its not whether or not you think your skin looks good and doesn’t look burnt from the sun because you cant physically see what damage you have caused to the deeper layers of your skin! I am a skin specialist and most people don’t realize the damage they have caused because on the surface it still looks good, but that’s not where it counts! When UV rays are absorbed into the skin they cause major damage to skin cells, this damage is hat creates aging, breaks down collagen or worst case cancer. Your skin is like a raw egg once you have cooked and killed it you cant change it back!

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