Understanding the different types of sunscreens

If you were to look into beauty buzzwords, you’d quickly come across the term ‘physical sunscreen’. Many manufacturers 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 Skinstitut, Zoe Devine, for guidance.

How is a physical sunscreen different to a chemical sunscreen?
Ms Devine says: Many years ago, sunscreens were developed to prevent sunburn, specifically targeting UVB rays. 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 and UVB are known as broad-spectrum and should be the standard that everyone uses. Of broad-spectrum sunscreens, you can use a physical sunscreen, a chemical sunscreen or now a hybrid (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). 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 hybrid is much more commonplace these days. It works to absorb, scatter and reflect UV rays.

What are UVA and UVB? 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 wavelengths 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 some sunscreens clog pores or feel sticky?
This will depend on the final composition of the formulation itself. There has been a great deal of innovation within the sun protection category in recent years. Gone are the days of the ultra-thick and greasy sunscreen that you used to have to slather on before a day at the beach.

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 manufacturer.

Further, there are some really light-weight textures now available that sit well under make-up 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 skin types not suited to some sunscreens?
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 (TGA) regulates some sunscreens to ensure they are safe, effective and of good quality. 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 patch test prior to using. Oxybenone has a higher likelihood of inducing contact dermatitis and is sometimes avoided by sensitive and reactive skin types. This ingredient also holds other concerns for some people, but is yet to be proven.

Is it still safe to continue using chemical sunscreens?
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 as you know they have been assessed for safety and quality.

Rebecca O’Hearn has had a long career as a fashion and beauty editor at Yours, Woman’s Day and FHM magazines and has styled some of Australia’s most famous faces. Her website, smartcasualclassic.com, is packed with fashion, beauty and styling tips. This article first appeared on her website.

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Written by Rebecca O’Hearn

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