Sunscreen Smackdown: Physical vs. Chemical Formulations

by | 25 October 2019

A new client visited a dermaviduals clinic recently to enquire about sun protection. She was very firm that she didn’t want any chemicals in any product she puts on her face. When we asked why, she looked surprised. “Physical products are always best,” she said. No. They’re not. Mother Nature has an absolute arsenal of weapons, from poisonous plants to killer bees to deadly, muscle-paralysing neurotoxins.

“This is a common misconception shared by clients and providers,” says our Managing Director Simone Vescio, who was discussing the topic recently with a dermaviduals colleague. “Scientists have shown that chemicals are everywhere, and that’s not such a bad thing when it comes to protecting your skin from the sun.”


Better Living through Chemicals


“Everything we see, eat, touch, and breathe is made up of chemical matter,” explains  Vescio. “Salt is a chemical (NaCL). The carbon in pencils is a chemical…and sunscreens are chemicals, too, whether they are labelled physical/natural or chemical.”

The main chemicals in sunscreen are

  • Oxygen
  • Titanium
  • Zinc

They are combined by manufacturers into the safe “chemicals” Zinc Oxide and Titanium Dioxide, commonly found in physical sunscreen, as well as chemical.


The Search for Evidence in the Claims


Advocates of physical sun protection say chemical sunscreens absorb more light and heat than physical sunscreens, thus producing more free radicals. This, in turn, can

  • Cause additional cell damage
  • Increase pigmentation risk

“There is a general lack of evidence to substantiate these claims,” says Vescio. “Additionally, so-called physical and chemical sunscreens absorb UV, so that shouldn’t knock chemical formulations out of the running.”


4 Steps to the Best Sunscreen Protection


Whatever sunscreen you choose, to get the most benefit, you need to:

  • Be Generous with Your Application – Don’t be penny-wise and pound-foolish trying to use as little sunscreen as possible. Sunburn does permanent damage to your skin, so apply and re-apply your sunscreen throughout the day.


  • Go with a Broad Spectrum Product – UVA rays age your skin and UVB rays burn it. The best sunscreens protect you against both kinds of UV rays. “Almost all sunscreens sold today are broad spectrum,” notes Vescio. “However, I always tell clients to read labels carefully, including the labels of our dermaviduals sunscreen products and self-tanner.”


  • Choose an SPF Rating of 30 or Higher – It is impossible to achieve an SPF of 50 without the use of additional ingredients that may or may not be to your liking. You only gain about 1% of extra coverage with SPF50 over SPF30, and you will likely pay substantially more for it, too.


  • Read the Ingredients – It’s easy to be seduced by packaging and marketing language. Before you fall in love with a product, read the ingredients carefully. “You simply can’t afford to gamble on your sun protection,” says Vescio.

dermaviduals: The Best Sunscreen for YOU


If your sunscreen leaves your skin dry, red and itchy, the problem may not be whether the product is physical or chemical. The problem may be your sensitive skin. “People can develop skin sensitivity for a variety of reasons,” says Vescio. Among them:

  • Ablative skin treatments
  • Over-exfoliation
  • Mass market skin care products

“Our experienced specialists diagnosis the origin of skin problems and then create customised treatment plans, including sunscreen and an ongoing skincare regimen for home and travel, tailored to the unique needs of a client,” says Vescio. “Lifestyle factors such as exercise or travel plans to a sunny destination all impact our recommendations.”