Face Off: Sunblock vs Sunscreen

Face Off: Sunblock vs Sunscreen

Face Off: Sunblock vs Sunscreen


Dermatologists pretty much all agree that one of the primary causes of skin aging comes from sun exposure. 

Even if you don’t regularly get sunburned, being out in the sun for long periods of time can increase your chances of getting premature wrinkles, sunspots, and loss of skin elasticity. 

For this reason, it’s super important to protect your skin from the sun’s harsh UV rays.

With the variety of misconceptions around sun protection, it might be hard to choose how exactly you should protect your skin. This guide will give you everything you need to know to help you choose between sunblock and sunscreen. 

But before diving in,  let’s talk about why any kind of sun protection is so important.


How Does the Sun Damage Your Skin?

The sun mainly gives off ultraviolet (UV) radiation, made up of four different types of rays that can lead to skin damage. When UV rays penetrate the skin, they weaken the bonds between cells on the skin’s surface. This also weakens the skin’s integrity, which can cause wrinkles, hyperpigmentation, and even broken capillaries. 

But the effects go beyond our appearance. Because the top layer of the skin protects your body from the elements and locks in moisture, sun damage can weaken these functions, as well. 

You may have heard that the sun’s rays are made up of mainly two types: UVA and UVB. These rays are both different in length and the way they affect your skin.

UVB rays have a shorter wavelength. These can penetrate the top layers of the skin and lead to sunburn. Therefore, they are mostly present in hotter climates and at higher altitudes. 

On the other hand, UVA rays penetrate deep into the skin’s layers, which breaks down collagen in the bottom layers of the skin. Because collagen is an essential structural protein, this type of damage can make your skin lose its firmness and elasticity. UVA rays are present all year and can even penetrate through clouds. 

Everyone is susceptible to the damaging effects of the sun’s rays. However, how much damage your skin can handle depends on your skin type. Light skin types, which are most susceptible to sunburn, produce less skin pigment to filter UV rays. For this reason, they are more susceptible to sun damage. 

However, just because darker skin tones are less likely to burn doesn’t mean they won’t experience sun damage as well. In fact, everyone experiences adverse effects from UV rays. That’s why it’s so important to wear sun protection at all times. 

With that said, there are two main types of topical sun protection available to you: chemical and physical, respectively known as sunscreen and sunblock. 

Sunscreen vs. Sunblock

Understanding the differences between the two is essential. Let’s find out how both sunblock and sunscreen works, how they can be applied, and who they’re the best fit for. 



Mode of Action: When you apply sunscreen to your face or body, you set off a chemical reaction once you step out into the sun. Sunscreen works by partially absorbing UV rays and breaking them down. Once the UV rays are broken down, they are converted into heat and released from the body. 

Many ingredients can go into a chemical sunscreen. The most common ones include oxybenzone, dioxybenzone, or avobenzone. These ingredients penetrate the skin to accomplish a chemical reaction.

Application: This type of sunscreen needs to be rubbed into the skin about 20 minutes prior to sun exposure. It generally applies very easily, which makes it suitable for daily application. 

In addition, there is less risk of uneven coverage because chemical formulas contain molecules that are tightly packed together. For these reasons, chemical sunscreen is considered to be a no-fuss form of sun protection. 

Safety: Unfortunately, there are some controversies about how safe some chemical sunscreens are. Some of the chemicals that sunscreen contains can be absorbed by the body and even into the bloodstream. 

This can understandably make you worry. But just because some ingredients can be absorbed does not mean that they will cause damage to the body. The science on this is mainly inconclusive as the effects of common sunscreen ingredients are still being studied. However, if this idea makes you uncomfortable, it is best to use sunblock, which sits on the skin. 

In addition, some chemical ingredients can be irritating for some people or even cause an allergic reaction. For this reason, if you notice that your body doesn’t tolerate chemical formulations well, then it might be better to switch over to a physical formula. 

Works Best For: Because chemical sunscreens are thinner and easier to apply, they are best for those who struggle with regular sunscreen application. In addition, chemical formulas can be easily paired with other ingredients that can benefit your skin, making it a good choice for those who prefer a no-frills skin care routine.



Mode of Action: Sunblock works by physically blocking UV rays from entering the skin and scattering UV rays away from the skin. This is thanks to mineral-based ingredients such as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. These are made up of large molecules that sit on top of the skin. 

Application: Because sunblock sits on top of the skin, it does not need to be rubbed in and applied right before going out into the sun. Although new sunblock formulas may be more pleasant to apply, many continue to complain that physical sunblocks do not absorb well and can leave a white cast on the skin. In addition, they can feel heavy and rub off easily, especially if you’re sweating. 

Safety: The main ingredients used in sunblock – zinc oxide and titanium dioxide – are said to be safe and effective by most regulatory agencies. 

Works Best For: In addition to being considered safe, physical sunscreen is also great for sensitive skin as it does not cause irritation. Because the ingredients sit on top of the skin and do not clog pores, they are also great for blemish-prone skin. 


Protecting the Environment

Another controversy surrounding chemical sunscreen is its effect on the environment. Specifically, those diving near coral reefs are asked not to wear chemical sunscreen because of the various ways that chemical ingredients can damage the reefs. 

For instance, some chemicals can impair the growth of algae, damage the DNA of coral, and even cause hormonal and reproductive effects in marine life. Always check your sunscreen for damaging ingredients if you plan to be near marine life. 

When it comes to the environment, physical sunblocks are safe for marine and aquatic life. Some popular vacation destinations have even blocked the use of certain chemical ingredients and only allow physical sunscreen to be applied before swimming. 

Suppose you’re debating whether you should wear sunscreen or sunblock. In that case, you are already taking a major step in preventing wrinkles, loss of skin elasticity, hyperpigmentation, and a host of other skin conditions. 

When you have decided on the type of sun protection that is best for you, make sure to do your research and pick a sunscreen or sunblock that is effective. Even though most products on the market protect you from UV damage, some tend to be better than others. 

However, If you do start noticing uneven skin tone, wrinkles, and sunspots, don’t despair. 

While it may be difficult to reverse sun damage completely, there is a lot that you can do to significantly improve your appearance. Just remember to protect your new improvements by practicing safe sun exposure! 


How the Sun Damages Our Skin | ScienceDaily

Skincare Chemicals and Coral Reefs | NOAA

Sunblocks: Mechanisms of Action | Photodermatology, Photoimmunology, & Photomedicine 

Sunscreen Guide | Environmental Working Group

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