Mineral, physical and chemical sunscreens | What’s the difference?

Rachel Meyer

Wondering what the differences are between all the types of sunscreen products out there? It can be hard to know which products will suit your skin type and offer the level of protection you need to keep your skin free from sunburn as well as long-term sun damage. 

From mineral sunscreen, physical sunscreen and chemical sunscreen, to the different factors of SPF, we’re breaking down everything you need to know about sun protection products and which ones are best for you. 

Got a question about which type of sunscreen to use for your skin? Book an appointment with one of our Skin Experts here:



Here’s what we’ll cover in this article:

  • What is the difference between physical, chemical and mineral sunscreen?
  • Why are there questions of safety when it comes to chemical sunscreens?
  • When should I use sun protection products? 
  • What does SPF 50 mean and do I need it? 
  • Summary: What type of sunscreen product should I buy?  


Woman in Car Window



What is the difference between physical, chemical and mineral sunscreen?

Let’s clear up what each of these three terms mean. Firstly, ‘physical sunscreen’ is the same as ‘mineral sunscreen’, the two terms are simply used interchangeably but they mean the same thing. 

When it comes to the difference between chemical sunscreens and mineral/physical sunscreens, this depends on the compound of ingredients in each, and whether or not they absorb or reflect rays

Put simply, chemical sunscreens contain chemical ingredients such as avobenzone, octinoxate and octisalate, and absorb UV rays and convert them to heat before they are released to your skin. 

Mineral/physical sunscreens, on the other hand, contain natural ingredients and compounds like titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, and they remain on the skin’s surface to create a physical barrier that reflects the sun’s rays. Both are effective ways to keep skin protected from the sun, but to make it simple, here is a quick pros and cons list:


Obagi Sun Shield Mineral Broad Spectrum SPF 50n





Mineral sunscreens are made with natural, non-irritating ingredients and are best for those with skin sensitivities.

Some physical sunscreens can leave a chalky white residue on skin.

Physical sunscreens can be more moisturising — great if you have dry skin.

Physical sunscreens can feel thick and greasy — so not recommended for oily skin. 

You can go outside immediately after application instead of having to wait 20 minutes, as with chemical sunscreens. 

Physical sunscreens can be more difficult to find in high street shops than chemical ones. 

If you suffer from rosacea/redness, physical sunscreens are best on heat activated skin as they reflect heat and sun rays away.

Physical sunscreens often have a longer shelf-life. 


 ZO Gel Sunscreen Broad Spectrum SPF 50





Chemical sunscreen spreads easily, so it can be easier to apply. 

Some chemical sunscreens can irritate skin.

A little chemical sunscreen goes a long way so you won’t need as much for protection.

Chemical sunscreens work by absorbing heat, so they can increase your internal temperature which makes you feel hotter.

Chemical sunscreens are easier to find in high street shops than physical alternatives. 

Chemical sunscreen is not always recommended for those with pigmentation issues or sun spots.

Many makeup brands use chemical SPF in their formulations to provide extra sun protection, so it’s easy to include in your daily skincare routine. 

Chemical sunscreen can cause skin irritation for some people, particularly those with sensitive skin, so you may need to try a few out before you find the one for you. 



Woman with hat in sunlight


Why are there questions of safety when it comes to chemical sunscreens?

While chemical sunscreens are formulated to protect skin, they often contain chemical UV filters that are absorbed into the skin in order for them to work. There has been some speculation on their safety over the years, primarily concerning the ingredient oxybenzone. 

Switching to a mineral sunscreen instead could be a good way to avoid the ingredients in question if they worry you, but many experts agree that a chemical sunscreen is still safer than no sunscreen, and since statistically chemical sunscreens perform better in consumer tests looking at how long they protect the skin from UV rays, it is difficult to say which is the safer option. 

This all comes down to personal choice, so if you would like help weighing up the safety of both options, your Skin Expert can talk you through the science and find the option you are most comfortable with.



Woman applying Sunscreen


When should I use sun protection products?

You may currently only use sun care products when lounging on the beach, but the most up to date recommendations from skin experts say that we should all be wearing a form of sun protection every day. And if ageing skin is a concern you have, using an SPF product on your face daily should be a priority. 

80% of the signs of skin ageing (like fine lines, pigmentation and sagging skin) are accelerated by the sun’s rays. This happens when UVA rays and UVB rays penetrate the skin’s layers and deplete our collagen – the thing that keeps skin firm and young-looking.

If you think you don’t need an SPF product because you spend most of your time indoors, or in a generally cold country with a lot of cloud cover, keep in mind that 80% of the sun’s UV rays can pass through clouds, so you are always being exposed to potential sun damage. 

And of course, there is always a risk of skin cancer when exposed to the sun. You can read Dr Julia's tips on how to check your skin for cancer, here

Also, if you are using a retinol product or certain other active ingredients, your Skin Expert will likely double down on the SPF advice, as some ingredients can cause skin to become extra sensitive to sun damage. 

You can learn more by watching Dr Julia’s YouTube video on the reactions to expect when using retinol or tretinoin, here. Or, feel free to speak to one of our Skin Experts to make sure you are taking the proper precautions after any treatments or products. 



What does SPF 50 mean and do I need it?

SPF stands for Sun Protection Factor, and in essence, the higher the number the more protection it offers. The SPF number indicates the length of time the sun’s UV radiation will take to make your skin red when using the product, as opposed to using nothing. 

For example, if you use factor 50, it will take 50 times as long for you to burn as you normally would. For this to be true, however, you will need to be using the product exactly as instructed, and this often does not take into account things like perspiration, the product rubbing off on clothes, and when wearing a high factor we often believe we can stay out much longer than we actually can, leading to infrequent top-ups and, therefore, sun damage. 

Keep in mind that using SPF 50 does not mean you won’t tan, it just means your skin will tan much slower and avoid burning. For skincare and anti-ageing purposes, we always recommend the highest factor you can find (often this will be SPF 50), to give your skin the very best protection against long-term sun damage.


Summary: What type of sunscreen product should I buy? 

Finding an effective sunscreen product to add to your daily skincare routine can be tough, with so many factors, types, brands and additional features to think about.

If you are confused about which product will be best for your specific skin type or skin issues, we would always recommend booking a free video call with one of our Skin Experts to discuss your personal skin history, skin goals, and more. They can recommend the best sun care products for your needs. 

Ready to chat about all things SPF? Book a consultation with your Skin Expert here: 




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