Physical or chemical sunscreen: How to know which type of sunscreen to put on your face.

This wonderful nugget of beauty wisdom comes courtesy of Mamamia’s shiny new beauty podcast, You BeautyTo ensure you never miss an episode, subscribe to You Beauty here. It’s a blast.

So, we all know we’re meant to wear sunscreen on our faces everyday, yeah?

*Starts slowly backing away into a cave of shame where there are no sun rays.

It’s OK, you won’t get in trouble, but we all must promise each other we’ll slap on facial sunscreen every day from here on out.

If you’re anything like me, you’ve been a bit lazy in the face sunscreen department but recently decided to get on board… so you went to the shops to where the sunscreens live, only to be figuratively bowled over by the sheer number of bottles on the shelves.

Said bottles can be split into two confusing groups: Chemical sunscreens and physical sunscreens.

But how do you know which one to put on your face?

To decode to mumbo jumbo, we asked Mamamia’s executive editor and beauty editor of 15 years Leigh Campbell for some much needed help. She went ahead and explained everything you need to know about chemical and physical sunscreens on the You Beauty podcast (get it in your ears below…)

Why you need to wear sunscreen on your face everyday.

Long story short, the sun can damage your skin whether you’re indoors or outside, when the sun’s shining or on a cloudy day.

“If you drive, most people age on the right side because that’s where the sun will get you when you’re not wearing sunscreen… and if you work in an office with a window, that’s magnifying the rays, so you do need to wear SPF everyday, even when you’re in doors,” Leigh said.


You also need to apply a good amount of it to adequately protect your skin.

“You need to use a teaspoon of sunscreen on your face to be covered. That’s the problem, people aren’t using enough.”

What is chemical sunscreen?

“The vast majority of sunscreens on the market are chemical, and chemical sunscreens contain, you guessed it, chemicals,” Leigh said.

“What a chemical sunscreen is doing is, it takes the UV rays and converts them in the skin with a chemical reaction. It kills the rays, but when it’s doing that, it’s releasing heat from the skin.”

Leigh said the pros of chemical sunscreens are:

  • They’re thinner in texture.
  • Easier to apply.
  • Look beautiful and seamless under makeup.

That said, chemical sunscreen aren’t for everyone.

“Why they can get a bad rap, particularly for sunscreen for your face, is because the heat from the chemical reaction process can make pigmentation worse. That’s why a lot of women who have hormonal melasma or pigmentation, they’ll go for a physical.”

Best chemical face sunscreens.

Here are the chemical face sunscreens Leigh reckons are ace.

Dermalogica Pure Light SPF 50+, $97.

Image: Dermalogica.

Ultraceuticals Ultra UV Protection Daily Moisturiser SPF 50+, $79.

Image: Ultraceuticals.

What is physical sunscreen?

"Physical sunscreens (also known as mineral sunscreens) create a physical barrier made from mineral ingredients that sits on your skin and bounce the rays off your skin and back out into the environment," Leigh said.

"There are less of them on the market because they're really hard and expensive to formulate, they're thick and contain zinc, and are expensive to buy.

"Basically, if you look at the ingredients and it doesn't have zinc in it, it's probably a chemical sunscreen."

While physical sunscreens are great for people who suffer from pigmentation or other skin conditions irritated by heat, it can be tricky to find one that will sit under makeup nicely and not leave your face feeling and looking like an oil slick by the end of the day.

Best physical face sunscreens.

Here are the physical face sunscreens Leigh loves, or has heard amazing things about.

O Cosmedics Mineral Pro SPF 30+, $49.

Image: O Cosmedics.

Invisible Zinc Sheer Defence Facial Moisturiser SPF50+, $23.80.

Image: Invisible Zinc.

Medik8 Physical Sunscreen Broad Spectrum Physical SPF 30+, $78.

Image: Medik8.

It Cosmetics Your Skin But Better CC Cream SPF 50+, $61.

Image: Sephora.

Side note - Leigh layers this with an SPF moisturiser because the product is too pigmented to be able to use enough to get the protection you need.

Go-To Zincredible, $45.

Image: Supplied/Go-To.

A note from Leigh:

"I've been road testing the new Go-To SPF 15 sunscreen moisturiser... I would call it a moisturiser with sunscreen because I'd hoped for more SPF. For me, it was really nice to put on, lovely glow, but because I'm combination/oily, by the end of the day with my base on top, I was quite shiny/oily. Great for an off-duty day."

You can read Leigh's full Go-To Zincredible face sunscreen review here.

To recap...

  • Chemical sunscreen absorbs rays and converts them into heat within the skin.
  • Physical sunscreen bounces rays off of your skin and back into the world.
  • Chemical sunscreens are great if you don't have pigmentation or skin concerns, can be cheaper if bought from the supermarket and apply well under makeup.
  • Physical sunscreens can be more expensive for a formulation that won't look thick on the skin.

Leigh's final word: "I prefer a physical sunscreen because I have pigmentation, but it's hard to say which is better... it's a personal choice."

You Beauty Cheat Sheet

Other questions Leigh and Kelly answered, as well as their ‘spendys’ and ‘saveys’ (and where you can buy them).

"I'm confused about fitting my new face fake tan into my routine because I use exfoliants, which step goes where?"

  • Lots of women asked this in the Facebook group - unfortunately, Leigh doesn't have good news.
  • Face fake tanning and exfoliating when done together are counter productive - face fake tan sticks to your face, and a chemical exfoliant/active ingredients will encourage cell turnover, taking the tan off.
  • It's an either or situation, Leigh's best advice is to alternate every couple of nights.
  • You could also use a slightly darker foundation or bronzing drops, and powdered bronzer to warm up the skin to match the tan in place of a facial fake tan.

Spendy and Savey

Leigh's Savey: Mud Cosmetics Lip Defining Pencil in Nude Interlude, $5.50.

Image: Woolworths.

Why she loves it:

  • Leigh's makeup artist friend taught her this lip liner trick: you line your lips with a nude liner right to the edge, colour in with the pencil then add balm on top.
  • This liner is perfect for that, looks like your lips but better.
  • Makes lips looks fuller and more shapely.
  • Leigh uses it with lip balm for her everyday lip look.

Kelly's Savey: Designer Brands Vivid Glow Illuminator Palette, $14.99.

Image: Designer Brands.

Why she loves it:

  • It's not for the faint hearted or for daily wear, great for a night out.
  • This little trio is more pigmented and more blinding than expensive highlighters, Designer Brands make great dupes for more exxy products.
  • Depending where you get it, it can be anywhere between $8 and $14.
  • Includes three shades: true gold, pinky rose and champagne.
  • Apply to the high points of the face, everywhere you would put a highlight.

Leigh's Spendy: Hourglass Ambient Lighting Bronzer in Radiant Bronze Light, $73.

Image: Mecca.

Why she loves it:

  • It's not cheap, but will last you forever.
  • Leigh thought she had to go for a matte bronzer because she's 'not young anymore' (her words), but this one has a chic, elegant finish that makes you look lit from within.
  • It's pearlescent but not shimmery, makes your skin look better.
  • Heavily pigmented, so always tap off the excess.

Kelly's Spendy: Elizabeth Arden Eight Hour Cream Skin Protectant, $28.

Image: Myer.

Why she loves it:

  • It's a thick, orangey, gel balm.
  • Can use on everything - pop on cuticles, under eyes, on dry bits, patted it into the skin when you're really dry.
  • Been around since the 40s and is a cult product.
  • A tube will last you years.
  • Fun fact - Leigh said Elizabeth Arden developed the product because after horse riding, her hands were rough from holding the reins.

Until next week, stay lovely.

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