Chemical vs Natural Sunscreen

We all know that spending too long in the sun and not protecting our skin from harmful rays is a no-no where our skin health is concerned.  Not all sunscreens are created equally though, and although any is better than nothing to protect you from burning, understanding the difference between chemical and natural sunscreen can make sure you’re choosing the right products for you & your family.

Chemical vs Natural

I think nearly all of us would take natural based products (which still work!) over chemicals which could potentially be harmful to both us and the environment, and sunscreen is no different. They work in different ways, with the chemical based creams being absorbed into your skin whilst natural sunscreens sit on top and reflect away both UVA and UVB rays.  So what are the differences? 

Chemical Suncream

The main way to identify a chemical suncream is through it’s ingredients as they normally contain at least one of –

  • Oxybenzone
  • Avobenzone
  • Octinoxate
  • Homosalate
  • Octisalate 
  • Octocrylene

These are absorbed into the skin and protect your dermis (or the lower layer of skin) from UVB rays through a chemical reaction which absorbs them, converts them into heat and dissipates them from the skin. 

Natural Sunscreen

Also known as mineral sunscreen or physical sunscreen, they will contain –

  • Zinc Oxide 
  • Titanium Dioxide

Both these ingredients occur in nature, however they can be produced synthetically, but the end result is the same. 

Natural Sunscreen works by sitting on top of the skin and bouncing the UVA and UVB rays off your skin, almost like a mirror reflecting them. 

So what’s the difference? 

As a society we’re becoming more and more switched on about what we’re putting into our body and as science develops we’re becoming more aware of how it affects our bodies, and sunscreen is no different. The ingredients which make up chemical sunscreen have been around since the 70s, and haven’t really changed at all. Natural sunscreen has also been around for a long time, but originally it was that horrible, white cream which never absorbed into your skin so I know as a kid there was no way I was letting my mum put that on me without a fight! Thankfully, natural sunscreen has developed and come a long way from that white, sticky first formula. The particles are much smaller now meaning no nasty feeling residue on your skin.  

It’s still not 100% clear exactly what chemical sunscreen does to our bodies or our skin, but one thing we do know is it is definitely absorbed and in scientific studies has been picked up from breastmilk in nursing mothers.  They’ve also been found to affect hormone regulation within our bodies, and oxybenzone has been linked to higher risk of endometriosis, poor sperm count in men and allergic reactions. 

The other issue with chemical sunscreens is they generally only protect from UVB rays (think UV Burning) and not the UVA (think UV Aging) rays. Although UVB is the main UV spectrum to cause skin cancer and DNA damage, your skin absorbing UVA has consequences for your skin too, and UVA is always there regardless of if it’s cloudy and overcast, and also penetrates glass. 

Natural sunscreens start working straight away, with a chemical sunscreen you should apply it about 20 minutes before you go outside as it needs time to be absorbed to start protecting you skin. However mineral sunscreen starts working straight away as it’s designed to sit on top of your skin, which is why it’s also called a physical sunscreen. 

Finally, the environment.  We know that every day we’re causing more and more damage to our environment even though we’re becoming more conscious and taking more care.  The chemicals used in chemical sunscreen is particularly harmful to coral reefs and the animals which live there, which is even more worrying when you think about the number of people wearing sunscreen when they’re at the beach! With natural sunscreen it’s 100% safe for coral reefs, so you can enjoy your dip (or dive) in the sea without worrying about contaminating the homes of the animals who live there.  

One last thing..

Wearing any kind of suncream is the best option for your skin, having 5 or more sunburns doubles your risk at developing melanoma and people who use a sunscreen daily show 24% less skin ageing compared to those who don’t so if you’re not currently using one every day, then it’s a must in your skincare routine!

To wrap it up, a really good way to think about it is that chemical suncream is like grabbing fast food, it still feeds you and does what it needs to, whereas natural sunscreen is like a nutritious home-cooked meal. 

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