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Chemical vs Physical Sunscreen: The Facts

Discover the benefits & drawbacks of both chemical & physical sunscreen, and the best situations to use each. You may be surprised at just how different they are!

Chemical vs Physical Sunscreen: The Facts

As the warm weather sets in, the sunscreen debate is heating up. Specifically, the debate about the benefits of physical versus chemical sunscreen. With proponents and detractors alike, physical sunscreens work by deflecting UV rays, while chemical versions absorb them. You can determine which type of sunscreen is which by looking at the consistency and packaging. Chemical sunscreens are typically less thick and more transparent, while physical sunscreens will list zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide in the ingredients.


While some instinctively shy away from chemical sunscreens in favour of physical options, this can be a hasty decision. To help you see the complete sun safety picture, we’ve rounded up the pros and cons of both types of sunscreen. Read on to boost your confidence when selecting sun protection products for your family this summer.

Physical Sunscreen

Physical sunscreens sit on the surface of the skin and block and scatter UV rays. They do this via mineral filters, the most common of which are titanium dioxide and zinc oxide. While physical UV filters can be found alone in sunscreens, they can also be used alongside chemical filters in a synergistic way to create very high-SPF, non-irritating sunscreens in light, breathable formulations.

The Pros

Usually thicker and whiter than a chemical sunscreen formula, physical sunscreens are easy to see where they have been applied and whern rubbed off, ensuring sensitive areas are covered and protection levels better maintained. Physical UV filters are growing in popularity, as they can be less irritating for sensitive skin than certain chemical filters.

The Cons

A physical sunscreen is often heavier and thicker on the skin than a chemical sunscreen with the same SPF. Therefore, physical sunscreens might not be the best choice for oily or acne-prone skins.

Mineral actives alone often offer less protection from damaging UVA radiation than chemical filters.

Chemical Sunscreen

The vast majority of sunscreens found on pharmacy shelves fall into the chemical category. These sunscreens contain active sun filters that penetrate the skin and absorb UV rays to prevent them from causing damage.

The Pros

Chemical sunscreens are able to provide highly effective protection without necessarily needing to be in high concentrations. This means they can be formulated with a lightweight, non-sticky feel that is ideal for daily wear. They spread easily on the skin and, as the chemical filters do not have a physical presence, there is no ghosting effect.

Compound formulas with multiple filters can be used to ensure the most effective broad-spectrum protection from both UVA and UVB rays.

This is vital as, while many people understand the risk associated with UVB rays, UVA rays – which cannot be felt – represent 95% of UV rays on the earth’s surface. They penetrate more deeply into the skin and play a significant role in accelerating premature ageing. It is essential to protect against both types of ultraviolet rays, as lack of protection over time can lead to deterioration in the skin cells, irreversibly damaging the DNA, and potentially leading to the development of skin cancer.

The Cons

Some chemical UV filters have been known to cause allergic reactions and irritation in sensitive skin. Concerns have also been raised over the years about potential free radical damage from long-term use. However, most modern formulas contain antioxidants to safe guard your skin’s health, now and into the future.

La Roche-Posay’s SPF Solutions

When comparing chemical and physical sunscreen, there is no clear ‘winner’. Rather, it’s a personal decision that requires you to weigh up the unique needs of your skin and lifestyle.

La Roche-Posay’s Anthelios range uses both kinds of UV actives in conjunction to achieve maximum broad-spectrum efficacy in the most comfortable to wear formulas. The actives used are tailored to suit each specific product, with all formulas dermatologically tested to ensure maximum tolerance for sensitive and allergic skin.

Chemical Sunscreens

For normal to combination skins, formulas with chemical UV filters can provide superior texture and comfort paired with very high UV protection. Free from fragrance and parabens and formulated with soothing, antioxidant-rich La Roche-Posay Thermal Spring Water, Anthelios XL Ultra-Light Fluid SPF 50+ offers high-level protection for sensitive skin. Ideal for daily wear alone or under make-up, it also helps prevent against sun-induced pigmentation.

Lightweight and non-greasy, Anthelios XL Anti-Shine Dry Touch SPF 50+ is the ideal pairing for oily, acne-prone sensitive skin types. It combines chemical UV filters with mattifying ingredient Airlicium – an anti-sweat molecule that can absorb up to 150 times its volume in sebum, sweat and oil.

Dry, sensitive skin is protected and nourished with Anthelios Ultra Cream SPF 50+. Light but moisturising, Ultra Cream uses chemical filtering to deliver non-greasy, broad-spectrum protection without any masking effect. Glycerin hydrates the skin as Thermal Spring Water soothes and antioxidant Baicalin fights free radicals.  

Rigorously safety and tolerance tested for delicate children’s skin, Anthelios Dermo-Pediatrics Spray SPF 50+ delivers very high broad-spectrum protection with 2 hours water-resistance. Non-greasy and non-comedogenic with an invisible finish, it is also fragrance and paraben-free.

Combination Sunscreens

For an even complexion, Anthelios Ultra BB Cream SPF 50+ utilises universal micro-pigments that adapt to all skin tones.

With a light, hypoallergenic fragrance and antioxidant protection, it combines chemical and mineral filters for comfortable daily wear for normal to dry, sensitive skin.   With a light, matte finish, Anthelios XL Anti-Shine Dry Touch SPF 50+ has a tinted version that uses both filtering systems for a unified and protected complexion.  

For those seeking more coverage, Anthelios XL Ultra-Light Tinted Fluid SPF 50+ has a universal tinted finish that flatters all skin tones.

For more information on the La Roche-Posay Anthelios sunscreen range for sensitive skin, visit the website.

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