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Summer Skin Protection: Physical vs. Chemical Sunscreen

Summertime is in full swing in San Diego and staying inside just isn’t an option. With a new baby and a toddler in tow, beach trips and park visits are a regular part of my maternity leave routine.

Aggressive sun protection is part of my routine too, and it has been since age 29.

Not only do I want to protect my skin against premature aging and sunburns, I want to protect against skin cancer too. In my 20s, skin cancer wasn’t something I worried much about. Now, with melanoma as the third most common cancer in women ages 20-39, I am all the more aware of the importance of sun protection. Becoming a mama has also made me more of a crazy SPF person. The last thing I want to see on my kid is a sunburn, and I don’t want them seeing one on me either! So, applying daily, broad-spectrum SPF to my family’s skin and my own skin (and topping it off with a big wide brim hat!) has been a crucial part of my lineup.

When it comes to sunscreen - just like any skincare product - there are dozens of brands, ingredients and formulas on the market. Choosing the best sun protection can be difficult and confusing. Ultimately though, all sun protection falls into two categories: chemical sunscreen and physical sunscreen.

Chemical vs. Physical Sunscreen: What’s the Difference?

Chemical sunscreens are known as chemical absorbers. These sunscreens absorb sunlight and UV rays and then convert the rays’ energy into heat. The heat is then released from the skin, which raises the skin’s internal temperature. Overheated skin can worsen brown spots and increase flushing in rosacea skin types. This category of sunscreen also contains pore-clogging and skin-irritating chemicals, so stay away if you’re a sensitive or acne-prone skin type.

Chemical sunscreens can also harm the environment. The ones with formulas that contain oxybenzone and octinoxate are now banned in Hawaii due to their damage of the ocean, coral life and the fish population. And, although chemical sunscreens can be considered organic because they utilize carbon-based compounds, they’re actually man-made in a lab. This is a definite case of the organic product NOT always being the superior product.

Physical sunscreens are also known as physical blockers. These sunscreens act as barriers that prevent UV rays from passing through your skin. Physical sunscreens utilize active mineral ingredients (titanium dioxide and/or zinc oxide) to deflect the sun’s rays.

Why I Opt for Physical Sunscreen

I’ll always opt for a physical sunscreen for these reasons:

  • Physical sunscreen does not block pores and is therefore ideal for my acne prone skin.
  • Since physical sunscreen deflects infrared radiation away from the skin, it prevents the skin from heating up, which can trigger the cells that produce pigment. To put it simply, physical sunscreen can prevent hyperpigmentation, and that is one of my main skin concerns.
  • Physical sunscreens are less likely to exacerbate irritation and redness since they do not contain skin-irritating chemicals.
  • Physical sunscreens work the moment you apply them, whereas chemical ones require about 30 minutes to sink in. Once applied, physical sunscreens last longer too (but, I always make sure to reapply every two hours if I’m outdoors).
  • Chemical sunscreens can disrupt hormones, especially those related to fertility. (Yikes!)

My Physical Sunscreen Picks

For my daily routine and summer outings, I opt for layering two physical sunscreens: Shade and Sheer Protection, both of which are paraben and gluten-free and made with clean, potent ingredients.

While physical sunscreens are typically associated with the classic thick white lines you see on surfer’s noses, Shade and Sheer Protection were formulated to dry without this “white glow” that drives so many people away from physical sunscreens.

Shade (SPF 22) is my go-to everyday sunscreen. The ingredients in Shade mattify and decrease redness in my skin, lightly hydrate, promote tissue repair and improve makeup application. It’s the perfect daily base layer. I even use it as a primer if I’m going out at night. It’s that good.

Sheer Protection (SPF 50+) not only protects skin, but the spray formula is also water-resistant for the perfect long summer day. The added green tea polyphenols help treat skin damage too. I keep one of these in my car, purse and office. It layers nicely on top of whatever I have on my skin if I find myself getting more sun than I anticipated.

Have (Safe) Fun in the Sun

I’m all for having fun in the sun - but in a safe way that doesn’t harm my skin in the long run. I recommend you opt for physical sunscreens, so that you and your family can enjoy a safe and happy summer under the sun.

And, if you’re in your teens and 20s and think that your skin will always retain that healthy, even and youthful glow...without proper defense, your skin will age faster than you do! Be smart and make SPF your BFF - the earlier, the better!

Happy summer!


Dr. Zoe


Shop Shade and Sheer Protection from the PFAM Store today

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