Difference between a chemical and physical sunscreen

Curious Chloride’s sun series, Part 3. 

Trying to choose a sunscreen in the jungle of available products is difficult.

But understanding the differences of the active sunscreen ingredients are for most people a game-changer and will make the selection a million times easier.

After this article, you will know what to get and what to avoid. 

Content:

Difference between physical and chemical sunscreen

Sunscreen products (creams, sprays, foams, balms) either contain a chemical or physical sunscreen, or a combination of both.

Chemical sunscreens used as UV filters, such as homosalate, octocrylene or benzophenone, protects the skin by absorbing the energy from the sunlight and transforming it to heat.

You will find the chemical UV filters in most traditional sunscreen products from big brands that you can find in supermarket and pharmacies.

A physical sunscreen ingredient reflects the UV light away from the body, preventing UV rays from penetrating the skin.

Titanium dioxide and zinc oxide are two minerals, approved as UV filters in the EU, that physically blocks the sun from reaching your skin. You can often find them in natural sunscreens, eco sunscreen, and organic sunscreens.

Physical, mineral, natural sunscreen

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) proposed in February 2019 a new regulation to “make sure that sunscreens are safe and effective”.

Out of the 16 currently approved active sunscreen ingredients, only 2 are “generally regarded as safe and effective”.

Those 2 are zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. Both of them are physical, mineral sourced, natural sunscreen ingredients.

Tiny mineral particles

Modern sunscreens with physical UV filters are, however, not what they used to be.

Consumers afraid of looking like a white ghost after applying their sunscreens do not have to worry. The new generation of products containing mineral/physical UV filters goes smoothly over the skin.

The reason why the mineral sunscreens do not give a white chalky appearance anymore is that the actual minerals have been made into smaller particles. Sometimes micronized or even engineered to nanoparticles.

2 safety concerns

1. Nanoparticles in cosmetics and sunscreen are a relatively new phenomenon and there is still some debate regarding the safety of them.

While some avoid “nano” altogether, others only stay away from nano-containing products that could be inhaled, such as sunscreen sprays.

The Organisation Friends of the Earth are among those very skeptical,

“Wearing sunscreen and protecting our skin from harmful UV rays is very important, but nano-ingredients in these products may be doing more harm than good to our environment and our health. … Despite a growing body of science calling their safety into question, our government has made little progress in protecting the public, workers and the environment from the risks posed by nanoparticles.

We urgently need FDA and EPA to step up and properly regulate and label these tiny and potentially harmful ingredients.”

2. Although, there is research showing that the physical sunscreen titanium dioxide is a carcinogen when inhaled, using it for example in cream is considered safe

To be on the safe side, use sunscreen creams rather than spray or powder to avoid inhaling any harmful chemicals. 

Chemical sunscreen

There are many dangerous chemicals in sunscreen that are known to cause negative effects on both humans and the environment. The chemicals are absorbed through the skin, our bodies largest organ, and then enters our bloodstream.

One of the biggest players in the world, the FDA, has recently published data (2019) that shows how sunscreen chemicals are being absorbed in potentially toxic levels by our bodies.

They found that people who had used sun protection (spray, lotion or cream) had dramatically increased levels of these chemicals in their bloodstream even 4 days after application. Levels that are potentially harmful, especially for pregnant women and young children, according to the FDA.

FDA has especially found clear safety issues with the sunscreen chemicals PABA and trolamine salicylate and does not consider them safe to use. The safety of 12 other sunscreen chemicals is still pending as the FDA waits for more data.

Until they are prohibited and out of products, use Curious Chloride’s Ingredient Scanner to avoid them easily.

Dangers of sunscreen of this sort

Many chemical UV filters are known to cause:

  • hormone disruption
  • increased infertility
  • and harm to marine life.

The negative effects these chemicals have on both humans and marine life are connected to their ability to disrupt hormones.

Almost half of all approved UV filters in traditional sunscreens interfere with the function of sperm by mimicking progesterone (steroid hormone). This can lead to the sperm failing to fertilize an egg.

Sunscreen chemicals can also damage marine life either when they are rinsed off and released in lakes and streams through the sewage system, or when they are spread directly in the water from our bodies when we go swimming.

The most famous example comes from Hawaii, who recently banned sunscreen chemicals oxybenzone (part of benzophenones) and octinoxate due to their harmful effects on marine life, ecosystems and coral reefs. But there are also cases in Europe where the chemicals we have on our bodies when we go swimming are damaging plankton and fishes.

Sunscreen causes cancer and impaired fertility

In the Norwegian Consumer Council’s yearly sunscreen test from 2017, only 8 out of 45 sunscreens got approved. The council’s director, Randi Flesland, said the results were disappointing.

The creams were checked for chemicals that are allergic, harmful to the environmental, cause hormone disturbances, which in turn can lead to serious consequences such as cancer and impaired fertility.

Couple enjoying the Parisian sun.

Buying sunscreen in the supermarket. 

“It is fully possible to make sunscreen without chemicals that we are worried about the effects of. This has eight of them proven. Sunscreen is an important protection against the sun’s rays, and because of this, it must be easy to make good choices.

It is completely wrong and unnecessary that the price of this necessary protection is an increased risk of the body and our planet.”
Randi Flesland

Choosing – chemical sunscreen vs physical sunscreen?

While we previously only used sunscreens for limited periods during the year, during summer vacation at the pool, many of us are now using sunscreen products daily, throughout the whole year.

“We rely on sunscreens to help prevent sunburn & to reduce the risks of skin cancer & early skin aging caused by the sun.” Dr. Ned Sharpless FDA

The benefits of sunscreen are in one way clear, but how do we choose a product that might be harmful in other ways?

One help might come from the people studying these chemicals; if you are worried about the potentially negative effects of UV-filter chemicals, simply choose a mineral/physical sunscreen product.

Researchers from Denmark studying the effects of chemical UV-filters in sunscreens recommend that especially couples wanting to have kids should choose sunscreens with physical filters.

Conclusion

So is sunscreen bad for you? If you choose a product containing a chemical UV-filter, the sad reply is – yes, probably.

Based on our findings, this is our conclusions:

  • Researchers advise, choose a chemical-free sunscreen.
  • Choose a product where the active UV-protector is either zinc oxide or titanium dioxide.
  • Always scan the products before you buy them – Curious Chloride marks harmful chemicals so you don’t have to memorize them yourself.
  • Always avoid products you risk inhaling, such as sprays and powders.

Sunscreens without harmful chemicals

It can be difficult to find sunscreens that are clean and safe to use, so below we have gathered the best mineral sunscreens we have been able to find.  All are clean beauty according to our scanner.*

Please comment if you have other clean sunscreens to recommend.

Suntegrity Natural Moisturizing Face Sunscreen & Primer, Broad Spectrum Spf 30

“Free of: Parabens, Phthalates, Propylene Glycol, Mineral Oils, Synthetic Dyes, Sulfates, Paba, Titanium Dioxide, Nano-Particles and Chemical UV Absorbers. Vegan, Non-Greasy, Light, Uplifting Citrus Scent Cruelty Free (PETA & Leaping Bunny Cert.)”

Original Sprout Face & Body Sunscreen

“Naturally vegan & worry-free, our SPF is used on the whole family. Mums love how it helps keep makeup in place & the savings. Excellent for the sensitive, dry or acne-prone skin. No titanium dioxide or nanoparticles. Helps preserve moisture without being greasy. Enjoy the real performance & savings with Sprout!”

The scanner highlights some ingredients yellow that “may be animal derived” but since the descriptions say the products are vegan the markings can be ignored.