With all these trends for natural skincare and physical sunblocks for surfers does everyone really understand how those things work and what is the difference between so called chemical and physical sunscreens?
So if you are at least a little bit curious about that, then this article us for you! I can also promise that you won’t be overloaded with complicated things: I will share with you just the bare minimum you need to know to understand this topic.
Chemical vs physical sunscreens?
The term ‘chemical’ is usually referred to all the mainstream sunscreen brands you can find in most supermarkets or drugstores. And although this term is not exactly the best to differentiate regular sunscreen from natural sunblocks like SURF ZINC (biochemists usually get disturbed by the term ‘chemical’ 😉 but I will still stick to it just for sake of simplicity to name those sunscreens.
So basically ‘chemical’ sunscreens is something we used all our life since childhood to protect ourselves from sun. These sunscreens use special ingredients (chemicals) that are absorbed by your skin to fight bad UV rays and to protect your skin from sun burns. In simple terms we can say that basically UV radiation is absorbed by this ingredient so it doesn’t harm your skin cells.
These sunscreens are usually rated by SPF number, so we know that 50 SPF is a better option for tropical sun than 15 SPF.
The good things about this sunscreens that they are usually transparent on skin, since they get absorbed.
The bad thing about these sunscreens is that some of the ingredients are now claimed as dangerous and might lead to further skin cancer developments and other stuff; some might build up in your skin etc. (This is a topic of biggest debated in the beauty industry)
Another bad thing is that most chemical sunscreens are good for body protection but not the best for face protection since they cause acne.
And one more bad thing is that in the past most chemical sunscreens would only focus on protecting your from sun burns but not from premature aging caused by sun.
These bad things lead to more popularity of natural skincare and particularly natural sunscreens.
Natural sunscreens are actually the ones called physical sunblocks. (or sometimes also mineral sunscreens). The reason they are called physical is because they are using mineral zinc oxide as main ingredient to protect you from the sun.
This mineral is harmless and is used for centuries as medicinal ointment. Nowadays it’s mostly used in dermatology to treat different skin conditions (i.e. for calamine lotion) and it is also said to be used for little children (as baby powder for diaper rashes). Sounds pretty safe!
Zinc oxide can occur naturally and that’s why sunscreens using this ingredient are called natural sunscreens opposed to chemical sunscreens. But of course nowadays most zinc oxide is produced synthetically in labs.
When used as ingredient in sunscreens zinc oxide works slightly different than most chemical ingredients. While those absorb harmful UV-rays, zinc oxide actually works as shield that doesn’t let the sun rays even reach the skin. That’s why it’s actually more correct to call them sunblocks, because they block the sun.
The good thing about natural / physical / mineral sunscreens using zinc oxide is that it can protect not only from sun burns but also from premature aging.
And since zinc oxide is widely used to treat skin conditions it’s doesn’t cause any acne like chemical sunscreens. Even more it can slightly improve the acne situation. (But that depends on other ingredients in the formula as well).
Besides zinc oxide there is another common physical sunscreen – titanium dioxide. Both of them are considered to be nonirritating, nonallergenic, and non-comedogenic.
One more good thing about surf zinc based sunscreens is that you can apply them and go surf right after that. For chemical sunscreens to work properly you are actually supposed to make sure you rub them into your skin until they get absorbed and then you wait 10-15 minutes for them to start working. Otherwise they just get washed off and you won’t get much sun protection.
Also something to keep in mind when you are using physical sunscreens: since they work as shield you have to make sure you apply a thick layer (hello to white or tinted face). If the layer is transparent you not gonna get full protection either. But at least you do not need to wait for 15 minutes before hitting the water 😉
Which one should you choose?
First of all please don’t fall into trap of people who think that chemical sunscreens are soooo bad so it’s better to use nothing at all. I would say it’s better to use any kind of sun protection than none.
Everyone makes his / her own choice which sunscreens to use.
Chemical sunscreens don’t leave white residue on the skin since they are absorbed into skin. Some people fall into that because they don’t want to have their face look white when they surf or do any other activities.
As someone living in Bali for several years, I can tell you that when you deal with tropical sun 365 days a year, you stop giving a though about how your face looks. You just want no sun burns and no wrinkles on your face 😉 But the choice is yours.
Another thing about chemical sunscreens is that they are obviously more wide spread then natural / physicals sunblocks. So it’s easier to buy them just by going into any shop. But as I mention before some chemical sunscreens don’t provide protection agains sun damage in terms of premature aging. Some cause cancer. Some sunscreens ingredients are known to harm reefs and sea life. Don’t buy those sunscreens for surfing.
So this is exactly the reason why it worth the effort to find natural sunscreen (my Surf Zinc or anything similar) and keep using it while in the water.
Go natural! Go green!
I switched to natural skincare and physical sunscreens couple of years ago. I guess living here in Bali and surfing every day puts you in the perspective about us surfers actually causing so much damage to the nature & ocean although we actually depend on it. So going into natural skincare, buying eco friends surf boards (mines are from Earth Technologies from California) is the way to diminish the damage at least somehow.