Chemical sunscreen vs physical sunscreen: which one is right for me?

Protecting your skin shouldn't be confusing, so here we unpack the differences of the two sunscreens so you can decide which one is best for your skin.

Summer is here, that means it's well and truly time to invest in a good quality sunscreen.
But are you confused about the difference between a physical sunscreen and a chemical sunscreen?
Protecting your skin doesn't need to be complicated, so here we break down the difference in the two sunscreens and list some great products that for you to use this summer.

Chemical or physical: What's the difference?

Sunscreens can be physical, chemical or a hybrid of both.
"Physical sunscreens sit on the skin's surface and reflect UV rays whereas chemical sunscreens absorb UV rays," explains Emma Hobson, education manager at The International Dermal Institute.
"One does not outperform the other so it's a personal choice."
Before you head to the shops to stock up on sun protection, find out which sunscreen will be the most suitable for your skin type.

Chemical sunscreen

The most common, with a melt-into-your-skin texture, so they're great for daily use.
They can irritate sensitive skin as they combine many ingredients to achieve broad-spectrum protection. They take 20 minutes to sink in and start working.
Label lookout: If it doesn't say non-chemical or mineral, it's likely to be a chemical sunscreen.
Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Clear Face Sunscreen Lotion SPF30, $16.99. Priceline Pharmacy.
Avene Sunscreen Lotion Face & Body SPF 50+, $28.99, Priceline Pharmacy.
Nivea Sun Sunscreen Protect & Moisturise SPF 50+, $21, Woolworths.

Physical sunscreen

Contain natural zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide to shield skin from UV rays. Start working immediately and don't usually irritate skin because they sit on the skin's surface.
Can feel thicker on the skin, block pores and cause breakouts, so look for the 'non-comedogenic' variety. To make physical sunscreens feel better and avoid the 'ghosting' effect, some products use nano-sized articles of zinc oxide and titanium oxide.
There are concerns about how much of these particles are absorbed into the skin. According to Hobson, the jury's still out on long-term safety.
"But I believe when it comes to sunscreen, the micro-particle sizes of ingredients like titanium dioxide are too 'big' to warrant concern."
If you want to avoid nanoparticles, skip sunscreens with descriptions like micro-mineral, ultra-fine or micronised.
Label lookout: Will be labelled sunblock, mineral, zinc, or non-chemical.
Invisible Zinc Tinted Daywear SPF30+, $39, Adore Beauty.
La Roche-Posay Anthelios Xl Comfort Cream SPF 50+, $28.95, Chemist Warehouse.
Clarins Sunscreen Care Cream - Very High Protection SPF 30 Body, $40, Adore Beauty.
Cancer Council Sensitive Invisible Sunscreen SPF30, $14.99, Priceline Pharmacy.

When to use sunscreen

You need sun protection whenever UV levels are 3 or above, says Vanessa Rock, chair of the National Skin Cancer Committee, Cancer Council Australia.
"Apply sunscreen 20 minutes before heading into the sun and reapply every two hours or after swimming," she says.
To find the daily UV index, check your local weather information.

How much sunscreen should you apply

It's important to apply enough sunscreen for proper protection.
"The average adult should apply at least a teaspoon for each limb, front and back of the body and half a teaspoon for face, neck and ears," says Rock.
She also recommends protective clothing, a broad-brimmed hat, sunglasses and seeking shade when UV levels are 3 and above.
WATCH BELOW: See Hugh Jackman's skin cancer scare. Story continues after video.

Skin cancer checks

Skin cancer can be more successfully treated if detected early.
"Ask your doctor about your skin cancer risk and develop a habit of checking your skin for new spots and changes to existing freckles or moles," says Rock.
"Ensure you check your entire body – skin cancers can occur on the soles of the feet or under nails. Use a mirror to check hard-to-see spots."
What to look for:
  • New moles, freckles or spots
  • Spots that increase in size change colour, become raised, rough and scaly or ulcerated
  • Spots that itch, tingle, bleed, weep or look different to your other spots
Not only that, but it's important to get regular, at least yearly skin check-ups with your trusted GP or at a skin cancer clinic. Some clinics bulk-bill for at least some of their services.
Live on the Gold Coast, Melbourne, Adelaide or Perth? TAL SpotChecker will be setting up free skin-cancer check stations at Surfer's Paradise on the Gold Coast (16-17 December 2017), then Federation Square in Melbourne (27-28 January 2018), followed by Henley Beach in Adelaide (10-11 February 2018) and City Beach in Perth (24-25 February 2018).
To talk to a qualified health professional in detail about skin cancer, contact the Cancer Council on 13 11 20.

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