Sunscreen 101: Chemical vs. Physical and My Recommendations

I’m sure we have all been reminded once or twice in our lives to put on sunscreen before going out in the sun. My dad used to tell me that he knew a guy who had to remove half his ear after getting third degree burns from the sun and that’s why it was so important to wear sunscreen, no matter how tedious it was. That may have been an old wives’ tale, but nevertheless I’m here to tell you again. Sunscreen is so important! I have become a firm believer in making sunscreen part of your skincare routine, and for many reasons.

  • Melanoma is one of the most common types of cancers found in young adults, and the leading cause of melanoma in Canada is overexposure to UV rays from the sun (or tanning beds).
  • Up to 90% of signs of aging on the skin are caused from sun damage.
  • UV rays are still there, even when the sun isn’t shining.

It’s pretty obvious that sunscreen is doing pretty good things for the overall health of your skin. There are also so many new options for sunscreen that are formulated to fit your lifestyle, so the excuse of ‘I don’t have time to re-apply’ or ‘sunscreen will just ruin my makeup’ doesn’t hold up anymore. I’ll be going over all of these new formulations, so keep reading!

The sun delivers two types of UV rays: UVA and UVB. UVA rays are the ones we may not be as aware of, because they don’t burn our skin. These bad boys are the rays that are always out, even when it’s cloudy. They are the ones that age our skin and cause skin cancers such as melanoma. Up to 40% of ultraviolet radiation reaches the earth on a completely cloudy day – yeah, it’s no joke. UVB rays are the ones that burn the skin, and are the ones we tend to associate sunscreen with.

Sunscreens typically come in two varieties: chemical and physical.  Broad Spectrum SPF sunscreens protect you from both UVA and UVB rays, and can contain ingredients from both physical and chemical sunscreens. Most sunscreens on the market currently are Broad Spectrum, but you can still purchase products that are either purely physical or purely chemical.

What are physical and chemical sunscreens?

Physical sunscreens contain minerals, such as titanium dioxide or zinc oxide, which sit on the top of the skin and deflect UV rays off the skin. Physical sunscreens protect from both UVA and UVB rays, making it broad spectrum. Because physical sunscreens sit on top of the skin instead of absorbing into the skin, they are less likely to clog pores – a problem so many people seem to have with sunscreen. However, they are easy to sweat and rinse off easily, meaning more re-application is necessary. They also tend to leave a white cast on the skin from the physical ingredients, which can make deeper skin tones look ashy.

Chemical sunscreens contain carbon based compounds to create a chemical reaction to change UV rays into heat, which then releases the heat from the skin. These sunscreens absorb into the skin rather than sitting on top like a physical sunscreen would. Chemical sunscreens are usually thinner in consistency and tend to be less greasy. Chemical sunscreens need to be applied at least 20 minutes before stepping out into the sun to make sure the product has truly absorbed into the skin. Because these sunscreens absorb into the skin, people with sensitive skin can be more likely to have a reaction to a chemical sunscreen rather than a physical one. They also can be more likely to clog pores, but won’t wash off as easily as physical options.

How does the SPF number work?

SPF stands for Sun Protection Factor. The SPF you choose to wear can be easily measured by a simple equation.

Minutes to burn without sunscreen x SPF number =maximum sun exposure time before re-applying.

So, if you typically start to turn red after laying in the sun for 10 minutes, and you wear a sunscreen with SPF 15, you have 150 minutes or 2.5 hours to be out in the sun before reapplying.

However, be cautious. If you go in the water or sweat a lot in the sun, your sunscreen will rinse off, which means you’ll burn sooner. Additionally, most adults don’t use enough sunscreen to cover their whole body. Experts recommend that fully grown adults should be using a shot-glass amount each time they apply sunscreen.

I have heard that SPFs over 50 are a marketing ploy to appeal to those who are afraid to burn. Apparently, an SPF 70 or 100 will work the same as an SPF 50. Personally, I am comfortable using between an SPF 30 or 50, but it’s really up to you and what you want to buy.

How I apply and remove my sunscreen:

In the mornings, I wash my face and apply my skincare as I would usually. Because I have a dry skin type, I apply a sunscreen over top of my moisturizer. Currently, I am using the Tarte Drink of H2O moisturizer. I let that sink in and will then go in with my sunscreen. As of now, I use either a Dermalogica or Coola sunscreen. I let those absorb, and if I am wearing makeup that day I will then go in with my foundation or concealer about 5 minutes later. If I am wearing a foundation or BB cream with SPF in it, I will not apply a sunscreen first. I love the Laneige BB Cushion for coverage and SPF 50 protection.

I am a big runner, and will usually run in the mornings before washing my face. If this is the case, I will apply a cheaper sunscreen – like one for the body (currently using Banana Boat SPF 60) – all over my face and body, including the ears, and then will go on my run. When I come home, I make sure to choose a cleanser with an oil in it to properly remove the sunscreen and then go about my skincare routine as normal, applying new sunscreen last.

Like I mentioned above, I use an oil to remove my sunscreen. I do this because my Sephora training has taught me that the only way to properly break down sunscreen and remove it from the skin is an oil. If I don’t do this, I almost always break out overnight. At night, I will start with a cleansing oil to break down my makeup and sunscreen. If I’m not wearing makeup that day, I will use a cleanser with oil in it instead of a cleansing oil just to save product (I have a million cleansers and only one cleansing oil). Currently I use the First Aid Beauty cleansing milk to remove my makeup and sunscreen. While it is called a cleansing ‘milk,’ this guy has coconut milk and oil in it. It’s effective but gentle, especially around the eyes. I will then double cleanse with a regular cleanser and continue with my nighttime skincare routine. I have been using the Laneige Multi Cleanser to follow up my cleansing oil at night.

Photo courtesy of Sephora

Okay, so now that all the technical stuff is out of the way, let’s move on to a few recommendations!


Dermalogica Dynamic Skin Recovery SPF

Medical Ingredients: Avobenzone (3%) and Octinoxate (7.5%)

I’ve spoken about this on my blog before briefly, but I will quickly go over why I like this sunscreen. It is super moisturizing, which is great for my dry skin. It feels hydrating and gives me a glow. It has SPF 50 in it, which gives me some great protection and I don’t have to worry about reapplying as often. It is more expensive ($99) but you get the bonus of it being a sunscreen and moisturizer in one.

Photo courtesy of Dermalogica

Coola Classic Sport SPF 50 White Tea

Medical Ingredients: Avobenzone (3%) and Octinoxate (6.2%)

This sunscreen is one you wear over a moisturizer, but I think it is worth the extra step. It’d very lightweight, so much so that you barely feel it there. I like to wear this one running because it doesn’t run down my face when I am sweating (hence why it is the sport sunscreen). Coola uses 70% organic ingredients, so while it is a chemical sunscreen, there are still ingredients in there that you can feel good about – I know a lot of people are worried about chemical sunscreen because it sinks into the skin. I love this one! I have recommended it a lot.

Photo courtesy of Sephora

Coppertone Clearly Sheer Face Sunscreen

Medical Ingredients: Avobenzone (3%), Homosalate (10%), Octisalate (4.55%), Octocrylene (9%), Oxybenzone (5%)

If you are looking for a drugstore option, the Coppertone Clearly Sheer option is a great one. It is very lightweight and I never found that it broke me out when I used it. I used the SPF 30 version. It worked well under makeup!

Photo courtesy of Walmart

Kate Somerville UncompliKated SPF 50 Soft Focus Makeup Setting Spray

Medical Ingredients: Avobenzone (3%), Homosalate (10%), Octisalate (10%), Octocrylene (10%), and Oxybenzone (5%)

I know a lot of people who wear makeup on a daily basis don’t bother with sunscreen because it is hard to re-apply with foundation and powder already set on your skin. However, Kate Somerville changed the game with her SPF 50 Makeup Setting Spray. It’s awesome. It gently applies a thin mist over your face to set and hold you makeup in place for the whole day, all while protecting your skin with an SPF 50! You can re-apply as much as you need with this baby and it won’t disrupt your makeup. It gives the skin a natural finish, but with more application your skin will become more glowy. I love this option for quick fixes and applications throughout the day.

Photo courtesy of Sephora


Drunk Elephant Umbra Sheer Physical Daily Defense SPF 30

 Medical Ingredients: Zinc Oxide (20%)

Drunk Elephant as a brand is one I am seriously obsessed with and constantly rave about their products to anyone who will listen. The sunscreen is no exception. Umbra Sheer was recently brought to Canada and boy, am I glad it did. It’s a completely physical sunscreen made with zinc, which appeals to a lot of people who try to avoid chemical sunscreens. It is very creamy and hydrating, so of course I love it on my dry skin! It has an SPF 30, so you do have to apply it more often. Also, it has a very white colour because of the zinc, which unfortunately can show up on deeper skin tones.

drunk elephant
Photo courtesy of Sephora

Tarte Tarteguard 30 Vegan Sunscreen Broad Spectrum SPF 30

 Medical Ingredients: Titanium Dioxide (3.36%), Zinc Oxide (4.13%)

Tarte, who is cruelty free and vegan, offers great skincare and sunscreen options. Their sunscreen is also creamy like Drunk Elephant’s, but it isn’t as thick so is suitable for more skin types. It smells nice, and sits under makeup nicely as well. A little goes a long way with physical sunscreens, so use a light hand! Also, the packaging on this baby is stunning. It comes in a fuchsia bottle with a gold-accented pump, and the texture has a silicone feel to it, making it easy to grip with slippery sunscreen hands!

Photo courtesy of Sephora

The Green Beaver Company Adult Natural Mineral Sunscreen Lotion SPF 40

 Medical Ingredients: Zinc Oxide (8%), Titanium Dioxide (8%).

For a cheaper physical sunscreen option, check out The Green Beaver Company. They are a Canadian brand and focus on using the most natural products possible. I haven’t tried this one personally, but I have tried other Green Beaver products and I like them a lot. You can find their products at Winners, Marshall’s or order online!

Photo courtesy of Green Beaver


I took to Instagram to see if any followers had specific questions about sunscreens. Here are a few great ones!

How often is too often to apply?

I tend to follow the SPF guidelines with application. If you burn easily, use a higher SPF and apply every two hours. You can’t over apply, but the sunscreen won’t become more effective if you pile on. You may also break out from using too much sunscreen and clogging pores. Try to follow guidelines and always reapply after getting in the water!

Is there anything out there that doesn’t have the typical ‘sunscreen smell’?

Yes! My favourite scented sunscreens are any of the Josie Maran Cosmetics or Hawaiian Tropic options. Josie Maran has a natural mango scent and Hawaiian Tropic has a coconut smell. Both excellent options for those who don’t like the regular sunscreen smell!

What can I use if I don’t like the sticky sunscreen texture?

If you don’t like the thicker sunscreen consistency that most body sunscreens have, try an aerosol option. They are lightweight on the skin and very quick to apply! However, they can be hard to apply effectively with wind. Apply with low wind so not to blow the aerosol away, and reapply after every time you get out of the water.



Posted by

I'm Taylor! I'm here to share my ideas with you about skincare and healthy living. I have four years of experience as a skincare consultant for The Body Shop and Sephora.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s