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You know that you should wear sunscreen every day to prevent skin cancer, but are chemical sunscreens safe to use? Should you choose a physical sunscreen instead, and what exactly is the difference between chemical and physical sunscreens? This month, we’ll discuss the different sunscreen formulas, and which is best to protect your skin from damaging UV rays.
Chemical vs. Physical Sunscreens
There are two common classifications of sunscreen ingredients, chemical and physical. The primary difference between the two is how they protect the skin from the damaging UV rays.
Chemical ingredients absorb into the skin. Then, they absorb UV rays from the sun, convert them to heat, and release them from your body so they can’t damage your skin and cause sunburns. There are currently 12 FDA approved chemical sunscreen ingredients, including avobenzone, octinoxate, oxybenzone, and others.
Physical sunscreens, also commonly called mineral sunscreens, sit atop the skin rather than absorbing into it. They create a barrier on the skin’s surface that reflects UV rays to prevent damage and sunburns. There are currently only two FDA approved physical ingredients: titanium dioxide and zinc oxide.
The sun emits two main types of damaging radiation, UVA and UVB rays. UVA rays penetrate to the deepest layers of skin and cause common signs of aging, like fine lines and wrinkles. UVB rays mainly affect the top layer of skin and cause sunburns.
If you look at the label on a bottle of sunscreen, you’ll notice that it lists multiple sun-blocking ingredients. The reason? A quality sunscreen should provide broad spectrum protection, meaning that it blocks both UVA and UVB damage. Sunblock typically includes multiple ingredients because some are better at blocking UVA rays, while others are better at protecting from UVB rays.
Pros and Cons of Chemical Sunscreen
In most cases, chemical ingredients provide more complete UV protection than physical ingredients. They’re also more effective at resisting water and sweat, so they’re usually the better choice when you’re swimming or doing physical activity in the sun. Many people also prefer using them because they’re usually a lighter consistency and absorb quickly, so they’re more comfortable to wear.
However, the chemicals may irritate some people’s skin, especially children and those with a chronic skin condition such as eczema, psoriasis, or rosacea.
Pros and Cons of Physical Sunscreen
Since physical sunscreens sit on top of the skin, children and people with skin sensitivities usually tolerate these formulas well. The consistency is often thicker than chemical varieties, so people with dry skin may prefer how moisturizing they are. However, people with normal or oily skin may find physical formulas too thick and heavy.
Unfortunately, since physical ingredients don’t sink into the skin, they can be difficult to rub in and may leave a white cast on the skin. Newer formulas are getting better and often have a tan tint so that they are less visible than previous versions.
For most people, one type of sunscreen isn’t necessarily better than the other. The best one for you is simply the formula that is comfortable to wear and doesn’t irritate your skin.
Is Chemical Sunscreen Safe to Use?
In recent years, as scientists have learned more about the connection between UV exposure and skin cancer, people have been applying sunscreen more often and in greater quantities. That has raised some questions about whether our bodies absorb unsafe amounts of chemical sunscreen ingredients.
Some recent studies have shown that the average person absorbs more of some chemical ingredients into their bloodstream, such as oxybenzone, than scientists previously thought. However, absorbing the ingredients doesn’t necessarily mean that they are harmful or unsafe.
The majority of chemical sunscreen ingredients have been in wide use for 20 years or more, and, to date, there has been no evidence that proves that any of the FDA approved ingredients are harmful or unsafe.
In 2019, the FDA asked sunscreen manufacturers to conduct research to learn more about the effects of their ingredients. They also proposed new regulations to bring non-prescription, over-the-counter sunscreens (like those you find at the drugstore) up to date with the latest science and new labeling requirements. The FDA’s goal is to help consumers better understand the claims of a sunscreen when choosing one to purchase.
Should You Stop Using Chemical Sunscreen?
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), and the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have all stated that chemical sunscreens are safe to use. They believe that using sunscreen to prevent skin cancer outweighs the unproven effects of toxicity or health hazards of chemical ingredients.
We have undeniable evidence that not using sunscreen drastically increases a person’s risk of developing skin cancer. Some patients wonder if it’s safer to go without sunscreen than to use a chemical formula. In our opinion, it is not safe to skip sunscreen. Remember that there is no evidence that chemical formulas are unsafe. Additionally, all 12 of the current FDA approved chemical ingredients have been found safe for use in Europe and other countries.
If you’re concerned about using a chemical formula, don’t stop wearing sunblock altogether. Instead, choose a physical sunblock. Because physical sunscreens don’t provide the same degree of sun protection as chemical varieties, it’s important to combine them with other sun-blocking strategies like wearing UPF clothing and seeking (or making) shade when you’re outdoors.
Need a Sunscreen Recommendation?
If you’re still not sure which sunscreen you should use or you’re struggling to find a formula that’s comfortable on your skin, get in touch! We’re passionate about sunscreen and can make recommendations based on your unique skin type and preferences.
Center for Surgical Dermatology is Central Ohio’s leader in skin cancer prevention, detection, and treatment. If you’d like assistance creating a sun protection plan, call (614) 847-4100 to schedule an appointment with us today.