Physical Sunscreen Smackdown

Physical sunscreens use ingredients that physically block or reflect UVA and UVB rays. Kind of like a hat for your skin. Or a glove for your face. Or something. Chemical sunscreens try to trap and degrade harmful sunlight before it affects your skin. It’s a much more complicated process which makes chemical sunscreens prone to expiration and oxidation. Physical sunscreens stay good forever and simply stop Mr. Sun in his tracks.

So why have chemical sunscreens at all? Because a physical sunscreen is always going to be thicker than a chemical sunscreen. There’s also that so cute whitish cast from zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. If you’re willing to sacrifice a little bit of pretty, though, physical sunscreens really do the job.

SkinCeuticals Physical Fusion UV Defense SPF 50

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Cult status product for sure, and what SkinCeuticals product isn’t? But is the product worth the hype? Physical Fusion UV Defense is definitely a solid product, feels great on the skin, application glides like butter, and keeps the skin red-free for a whole day. While it’s not water resistant (you’ll need Sport UV Defense for that) it still provides excellent protection through mild sweat and exertion. Of all the physical sunscreens reviewed here, this one was the easiest to cleanse off at the end of the day. That’s a definite plus in my book because extracting nasty plugged pores from your sunscreen is not the way to spend your summer. Final verdict? If you can afford it, go for it—especially if you have acne-prone skin.

Elta MD UV Clear SPF 46

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I really, really, really wanted to like this product. Another beauty editor darling, Elta MD UV Clear specifically targets sensitive skin and promises to provide smooth sailing despite daily sunscreen application. The inclusion of niacinamide in the base does help soothe redness or flushing if you have rosacea. If you’re prone to closed comedones, though, watch out! Even though this sunscreen is smooth and silky, it sticks to your skin and seeps into your pores. Despite double-washing and every facial cleanse trick known to man, this sunscreen gives me massive clogged pores, every time. If you don’t have any acne, though, this is the most natural looking physical sunscreen with barely a trace of whitish cast.

Elta MD UV Shield SPF 45

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This is almost identical to UV Clear—it’s just a whole lot cheaper. It’s basically the “body” version and so it doesn’t have niacinamide or other special face ingredients. If you regularly use a lot of sunscreen, consider Elta MD UV Shield as a more affordable alternative.

Badger Baby Sunscreen SPF 30

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The worst. Seriously. Don’t buy. It’s like spreading diaper rash cream on your face.

Neutrogena Sensitive Skin Sunscreen SPF 60

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The highest SPF rating so far in a fairly middle-of-the-road sunscreen base. It doesn’t win any marks in the elegance department, and requires a fair of amount of rubbing in, but once it’s on it’s not too noticeable. Neutrogena Sensitive Skin Sunscreen doesn’t irritate the skin and it’s water resistant for 80 minutes.

Why do you like physical sunscreens, and what’s your favorite brand?

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