If you were to look into beauty buzzwords you’d quickly come across the term “physical sunscreen”. Many are moving away from traditional sunscreens and searching for higher protection but is their pursuit futile? Does a physical sunscreen, one that blocks the sun, work better than a traditional chemical sunscreen that absorbs into the skin? We asked skin expert at cult-brand Skinstitut, Zoe Devine to help us out on this important topic.
How is a physical sunscreen different to a chemical sunscreen?
Originally, many years ago, sunscreens were developed to prevent sunburn specifically – targeting UVB rays. Though we are now aware that our skin needs to be protected against UVA rays also as these rays cause much more damage deep within the skin. Sunscreens that protect against both UVA & UVB are known as broad-spectrum and should be the standard that everyone uses. Of broad-spectrum sunscreens, you can use either: a physical sunscreen, chemical sunscreen, or now a hybrid (being a combination of both physical and chemical).
Physical sunscreen works by blocking and scattering UV rays before they penetrate your skin (typical physical ingredients include zinc oxide and titanium dioxide). Whereas a chemical sunscreen has a different mode of action, it works by absorbing the UV rays before they can damage the skin.
In reality, the 3rd variety is much more commonplace these days (hybrids), a sunscreen that incorporates ingredients that offer physical and chemical protection. A hybrid sunscreen works to: absorb, scatter and reflect UV rays.
UVA + UVB – what are they? Which causes sunburn and skin cancers?
UVB rays are short wave lengths of light – the majority of their damage is localised to the more superficial layers of the skin; the epidermis. It’s UVB rays that induce the ‘burn’ response in the skin.
UVA rays are longer wave lengths of light – they produce damage much deeper within the skin, at the dermal level. This is where they have a resounding effect on collagen, elastin and overall skin health, ultimately leading to cellular damage, disease, cancer and premature ageing.
These rays also produce secondary damage due to free radical production, which leads to longer term skin damage.
Will it clog pores, feel sticky or make me break out?
This will depend on the final composition of the formulation itself. There is a pre-conceived notion that all sunscreens will make people break out but this isn’t the case as there has been a great deal of innovation within the sun protection category over the more recent years. Gone are the days of the ultra-thick and greasy sunscreen that you used to have to slather on before a beach day.
Many formulations are now non-comedogenic, meaning they do not cause congestion within the skin. If you’re unsure you can always check with the product manufacturer.
Further, there are some really light-weight textures now available that sit well under makeup and can be re-applied throughout the day without feeling too heavy. Remember, many are now hybrids (using physical and chemical ingredients) to deliver the best protection, finish and wearability.
Are there any skin types that it may not be suitable for?
When it comes to exclusive physical vs chemical, historically, some more sensitive skins have not responded as well to all chemical sunscreens. That said, both types have been tested as safe and effective. For example, within Australia, the Therapeutic Goods Association regulates some sunscreens as therapeutic goods to ensure they are safe, effective and of good quality. To do so, each ingredient used has to be assessed for safety. Further, they also test the sun protection factor (SPF) to ensure the product claims can be verified. Approved sunscreens within Australia use both physical and chemical ingredients.
Sometimes the perception of what is ‘natural’ or ‘synthetic’ may be confusing and lead people to certain conclusions about ingredients. For example, all ingredients in sunscreen are chemically derived. Physical sunscreen ingredients are inorganic mineral compounds and chemical ingredients are known as UV organic filters.
Are there any chemicals in common sunscreens that we should look out for and avoid?
If you’re prone to reactive skin conditions, such as contact dermatitis, there may be certain chemical sunscreen ingredients that you want to avoid or test patch prior to using. Oxybenone has a higher likelihood of inducing contact dermatitis and is sometimes avoided by sensitive and reactive skint types. This ingredient also holds other concerns for some people but is yet to be proven.
Is a physical sunscreen better than chemical or just a good alternative? Is it still safe to continue using chemical sunscreen?
Yes, it’s safe to continue using your chemical sunscreen if you have been doing so without any skin reaction to date. Especially keep a look out for products that have been approved by the TGA in Australia as you know they have been assessed for safety and quality.
Further, you may like to invest in a hybrid sunscreen that has the best of both worlds. For example, skinstitut Age Defence SPF50+ is a hybrid sunscreen that used Tinasorb M & TInasorb S as the active sun protective ingredients. Tinosorb M (also called Bisoctrizole) is a water-soluble ingredient that is added to sunscreens to provide additional UV absorption. Like Tinosorb S, this ingredient can absorb both UVA and UVB rays. It also stabilizes other sunscreen compounds that absorb UV rays. This organic ingredient uses a unique blend of particulates to offer 3 powerful actions. By absorbing, reflecting and scattering the sun’s UV rays. Tinosorb S (also called Bemotrizinol) is an oil soluble ingredient that is capable of absorbing UVA and UVB rays, resulting in broad UV spectrum protection for the skin. One of the benefits of Tinosorb S is that it is a photostable compound. When combined with other sunscreen ingredients, it helps to avert molecule degradation caused by the photons present in the sun’s rays.
Thank you for your deep insight into this topic, Zoe. In conclusion, and with many beauty products, it’s best to find what works for your skin, lifestyle and budget. And as always ensure your chosen sunscreen is approved by our wonderfully-rigid Therapeutic Goods Association. Enjoy your summer with peace of mind and always slip, slop, slap, seek & slide.
More stories from Smart. Casual. Classic.