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The low down on chemical vs. physical sunscreen

Skin protection

Posted on 13/05/20

At the moment, there are two types of sunscreen available in the marketplace: chemical and physical.

Some brands combine both. You’ll immediately know which is which as I describe them.

There is no right or wrong. I don’t think men care about the pros and cons of two different types of sunscreen, so I won’t repeat what is already readily available on the internet.

The bottom line is that any skin protection is better than none at all.

Clearly, you are more likely to use something you prefer so it’s down to finding what it is that you prefer. And that’s my goal for you today.

What is physical sunscreen?

Physical sunscreen is exactly what it says.

The cream forms a physical barrier on the skin that deflects and scatters the sun’s rays. Almost like a mirror. These sunscreens contain cool-sounding ingredients like titanium dioxide or zinc oxide which are white, powder like substances. 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.

I’m aware this cricketer is Alan Donald and he’s South African not Australian but he was an iconic fast bowler when I was young and always had sunscreen smeared across his face.

What is chemical sunscreen?

Funnily enough, chemical sunscreen also does exactly what it says on the tin.

Organic carbon-based chemical compounds rub in and ‘bind’ to the skin.

The sun’s rays reach the skin and instead of being deflected, they are absorbed and react with the chemical sunscreen. This chemical reaction converts the UV rays into heat which is then released from the skin.

Chemical sunscreens aren’t effective immediately which is why sunscreen brands should tell you to apply them to your skin 20 minutes before going into the sun.

Chemical sunscreens are generally lighter and easier to rub in. They’re also available in sprays and pumps.

Chemical vs. physical sunscreen? Can you just tell me what I should use?

In a world where choice is stifling, I often just like to be told what to do.

This is a bit difficult here because it’s down to personal preference and skin type but, at the risk of outrage from dermatologists and skin bloggers, I’ll try and guide you.

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 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.

If you have sensitive skin, physical sunscreens are likely to be better for you because the chemicals in chemical sunscreens may irritate your skin. Then again, they might not so you need to try different brands and find one you like.

If you are 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.

If skin feel is important to you and you don’t want something that requires a lot of work, you’ll generally prefer chemical sunscreens. I say ‘generally’ because a lot of physical sunscreen products have been developed into really user-friendly, lightweight products.

You need to be aware that chemical sunscreens will need to be regularly re-applied and, as I said earlier, rubbed into the skin 20 minutes before sun exposure.

In conclusion and as a very broad rule of thumb, if you have sensitive skin, try a physical sunscreen first. Otherwise, you should be happy with a chemical sunscreen.

In the interests of full transparency…

LifeJacket skin protection products are a combination of physical and chemical sunscreens.

Our mission as a brand is to stop men getting skin cancer across Europe. We hope to achieve that through education, constant gifting and developing products that you won’t think twice about using.

We wanted to remove the barriers of conventional sunscreens. This meant producing gels that rub in effortlessly. No hair or cream clogging issues. Quick-drying. No greasy-feel. It’s impossible to achieve that with 100% physical sunscreens as we discovered in the lab after years of trying.

We have absolutely nothing against 100% physical or 100% chemical sunscreens (or any sunscreen brand for that matter). A combination of the two types just happened to be what we thought delivered high performance skin protection and the other ‘male-friendly’ characteristics we were looking for. 

First and foremost, our mission is to stop men getting skin cancer.

If we can help you realise the need to protect yourself from the sun all year-round and you don’t use LifeJacket products, we couldn’t be happier because, little by little, our message is filtering through.   

Thanks for reading.

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