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Simply Sustainable: Chemical vs. Physical Sunscreen

Imagine a popular Hawaiian beach, think about the thousands of people that visit that beach daily. Everyone is applying their sunscreen and getting into the water, releasing large concentrations of chemicals into the water that make their way to near-by aquatic ecosystems. When thinking about the size of the ocean, you may not think this would be a problem but with increased tourism, more and more people are visiting these beautiful locations which is in turn harming them. 

With summer just around the corner, it is more important then ever to protect your skin from harmful UV rays to avoid skin damage down the road. But, with all the information being thrown at you, it may be confusing deciding which type of sunscreen to choose. On the shelves you will see everything from "organic" to "reef-safe" being advertised, but the best thing you can do is to read the ingredient list and be aware of what you should avoid!

First lets talk about the difference between chemical and physical sunscreens, which one should you use? 

Chemical Sunscreens:
Chemical sunscreens are made out of organic compounds, ingredients you might recognize like oxybenzone, benzophenone and avobenzone. These sunscreens work by seeping into the top layers of your skin and absorbing UV rays and releasing them as heat - a chemical reaction. 

  • Less product is needed, spreads easily on the skin
  • Can be more water resistant 


  • Increased chanced of skin irritation - ingredients can cause irritation when exposed to sunlight
  • Protection can get used up quickly when in direct UV light 
  • May clog pores
  • Need to wait a little bit after applying for it to be effective 
  • Typically only protect against one type of UV ray and needs to be coupled with other chemicals to protect against both UVB and UVA rays
  • Causes known environmental harm 

Physical Sunscreens:
Physical sunscreens, also called mineral sunscreens, are made up of active materials like zinc-oxide and titanium dioxide. These sunscreens work as a protective barrier on the skin, reflecting UV rays instead of absorbing them. 

  • Often protects against both UVB and UVA rays and is naturally broad-spectrum 
  • Can last longer under direct sunlight 
  • Less likely to cause skin irritation or clog pores 
  • Starts working immediately after application 
  • Much safer, as long is it is non-nano, for the environment


  • Can rub off more easily, so you need to reapply more often
  • May leave a white or chalky appearance 
  • Need to reapply more often or apply more generously 

So the main difference between chemical and physical sunscreens is that one absorbs uv rays and one reflects them, without being presented more information both options seem appealing. There are pros and cons to using both, but based on research the cons of chemical sunscreens present enough concerns that prove the ingredients should be avoided. 

Despite extensive research proving that ingredients in chemical-based sunscreens are harming aquatic ecosystems, these products are still widely used and advertised. This is why places like Hawaii and the US Virgin Islands have taken action and banned the use/sale of sunscreens that use toxic ingredients to protect their ecosystems.

If you are questioning wether you should use a sunscreen or not, read the ingredient list!
Lets talk ingredients you should avoid:

  1. Oxybenzone: Oxybenzone is probably the most well known sunscreen ingredient that has been deemed "unsafe". It has been found in up to 96% of participants tested in studies, meaning it is easily absorbed into our bodies. It is also a major culprit in the coral bleaching events happening around the globe. It is also considered a phototoxin, which means that when exposed to sun it can lead to skin irritation. So why are we using this ingredient in products meant to be used for sun exposure? Read more about Oxybenzone in a previous blog here
  2. Octinoxate: Another ingredient that has been found in human urine, blood and even breast milk. Also a major contributor to marine ecosystem damage. Read more here.
  3. Avobenzone: Avobenzone actually photo-degrades when it is exposed to sunlight, so it needs to be coupled with other chemicals to accurately protect against the sun, so again why we are using it? Read more here.
  4. Benzophenone: Many studies show that 95% of Americans have benzophenone in their bodies, and although research regarding its true health effects is lacking, it is directly linked to the bleaching of corals. 
  5. Nano-titanium dioxide and zinc-oxide: Nano particles can absorb into the skin of both human and animals and cause developmental damage. Make sure the sunscreen you are using contains NON-NANO versions of these ingredients. 

The FDA still claims that there is not enough information regarding the health effects of these chemicals on the human body, but they do know that there are concentrations of these chemicals in the body, even just after one use. But it IS known that they are harming the environment, so why take the risk. 

Why continue to cause unnecessary damage to your body and to the environment when there are alternatives that can be used that will still provide protection and be A LOT less harmful. Dermatologists have said that they do not think there is enough evidence that proves that chemical sunscreens are bad for your health but they do agree that physical sunscreens can protect the skin just as well and maybe even more effectively. 

Environmental Damage of Chemical Sunscreens:

Up to 14,000 tons of sunscreen end up in the water around coral reefs each year, over-tourism is having a damaging effect on our aquatic ecosystems. Read about how these chemicals damage coral reefs here.

Tourism-based economics that rely on their nearby coral reefs will see major financial devastation as coral reefs continue to die off. Not only will there be economic decline, there will also be major environmental decline. Coral reefs not only help regulate the ocean by producing oxygen, they are nurseries and homes to thousands of species and serve as coastal protection from large waves and storms.

If tourists want to keep enjoying the beauty of coral reefs, they need to take their part in protecting them. Chemical sunscreens make the corals and other species more susceptible to damage like bleaching and disease which makes it harder for them to be resilient against ongoing climate change and warming ocean temperatures.

Why choose a physical sunscreen over a chemical sunscreen?

The biggest con or inconvenience of using a physical sunscreen is having to reapply more often or having a chalky/white appearance, but that is pretty minor when it comes to protecting yourself and the environment. Companies have also come a long way, now presenting mineral-based sunscreens that are easier to apply and don't leave a white film. 

Ultimately, what sunscreen you use is up to you. But if you take anything away from this just be aware of the possible damage that toxic ingredients can cause when released into the environment. If you are going to wear a chemical sunscreen, avoid going into the ocean or lakes so those ecosystems are not put at risk. 

When using a physical sunscreen you need to remember that it is not water resistant, meaning you just need to be on top of reapplying you sunscreen when swimming or sweating. 

At SUR we have our own Mineral Defense Tinted Zinc Sunscreen made with non-nano zinc-oxide. It comes in 5 different shades; no-tint, nude, sand, peach and toffee. Shades can be mixed together to create the perfect match for your skin! 


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