What is the Difference Between a Physical and Chemical Sunscreen?

When looking for a sunscreen you need to know what you are buying. There are two classifications when you are talking about sunscreens:  Chemical and Physical.

  • Chemical sunscreens work by absorbing the energy of UV light before it affects your skin.  There is no single ingredient in a chemical sunscreen that totally blocks the UV spectrum (unlike a  physical sunblock ).  Therefore, several chemicals such as, avobenzone, oxybenzone or octorylene, just to name a few, are put into the product to give you the UVB (the burning ray) and more recently, UVA (the aging ray) protection.
  • Physical sunscreens most often referred to as sunblocks, scatter the UV light before it reaches your skin.  The two most common ingredients found in physical sunblocks are Zinc Oxide and Titanium Dioxide.  These ingredients physically block the ultraviolet radiation and provide broad spectrum protection against UVB and UVA rays.

Recently you may have heard reports that the use of chemical sunscreens may cause cancer.  This has not been proven with any clinical studies.  The vast majority of health care providers recommend the use of sunscreens/sunblocks, since it has been shown that unprotected sun exposure and indoor tanning beds do definitely increase one’s risk for all types of skin cancer.

If you are concerned about the controversy over sunscreens being potentially harmful, I would suggest sticking with a physical sunblock with Zinc Oxide and/or Titanium Dioxide as its only active ingredients.

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