Chemical Sunscreen vs Physical Sunscreen: What You Need to Know

Chemical Sunscreen vs Physical Sunscreen: What You Need to Know

Posted by Angela Gross @ Naturally Safe Cosmetics on 8th Nov 2016

In a sun-drenched country like Australia, sunscreen is an absolute must for everyone when spending time in the great outdoors. Sunscreen acts as a filter & protects against the damaging effects of the Sun by reducing the amount of ultraviolet (or UV) rays that reach the skin. It extends the amount of time it takes for a person’s skin to burn when exposed to the Sun’s rays. This amount depends on the sunscreen’s SPF (Sun Protection Factor) rating. It is important to remember, however, that no sunscreen completely blocks UV radiation or provides 100% protection against UV radiation. A certain amount of UV rays will always get through damaging the cells below. This damage can build up over time, increasing a person’s risk of melanoma and other skin cancers.

Image source: stock photo

Most sunscreens contain either a chemical filter or a physical filter or even a combination of both.

Chemical sunscreens work by absorbing UV radiation before it can penetrate deeply into the skin and cause damage. Chemical sunscreen ingredients are molecular in size and because they are designed to be absorbed into the skin, they can get into the bloodstream. According to the Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep Cosmetic Database, a commonly used UV absorber, Oxybenzone, has been associated with allergic dermatitis and photosensitivity and may disrupt hormones. There is also debate about whether some chemical sunscreen ingredients are carcinogenic. In our job, we hear from so many people who find the chemicals in chemical sunscreens irritating to their skin.

Physical sunscreens, on the other hand, are designed to sit on the skin’s surface and deflect or block the Sun’s rays. They usually contain zinc oxide (ZnO) and/or titanium dioxide (TiO2) as their active ingredient/s. In conventional formulations, ZnO and TiO2 leave a white layer on the skin, but many sunscreen formulations these days use nanoparticled zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide. There has been some controversy surrounding the safety of these nanoparticles. The Therapeutic Goods Administration in Australia (TGA) has concluded in its studies and reviews of data that "the current weight of evidence suggests that TiO2 and ZnO nanoparticles do not reach viable skin cells or the general circulation, but rather they remain on the skin surface and in the outer layer of the stratum corneum which is composed of non-viable, keratinized cells." Also, "potential for harm has not been demonstrated in vivo following exposure to these nanomaterials from normal sunscreen usage in short-term studies."1 So the current concensus seems to be that nanoparticles do not penetrate healthy skin and do not pose a health risk in liquid or cream formulations, such as sunscreens. Products containing nanoparticles that can be airborne or aerosolized (e.g. spray sunscreens) should be avoided, however, due to the risk of inhalation of these nanoparticles. By the way, a nanometer is equal to one billionth of a meter! Nanoparticles are sized between 1 and 100 nanometers).

If you find that chemical sunscreens cause irritation or skin rashes or you just don’t want to take the risk with chemical UV absorbers, then look for a chemical free sunscreen that uses a blend of natural ingredients with zinc oxide as its active ingredient.

Naturally Safe Cosmetics only stocks natural sunscreens from trusted brands like WotnotUV NaturalEco Sunscreen and Eco Tan. As we head into Summer, make sure you're ready for outdoor fun by stocking up on your safe sunscreen supply. Whichever brand you choose, there are sunscreens for everyone, including babies and sports enthusiasts, and you can rest assured that none of our sunscreen products contain harmful chemical UV absorbers.


1 Therapeutic Goods Administration Literature review on the safety of titanium dioxide and zinc oxide nanoparticles in sunscreens. V1.0 August 2013.