How to Choose a Sunscreen for Acne-Prone Skin

Why it’s important to wear sunscreen every single day

We used to think sunscreen was just a product we wore in the summer to avoid looking like a lobster. Now, we’re being told more and more that we need to wear sunscreen every single day, rain or shine. It’s not only important to wear sunscreen during those summer months when we’re most susceptible to sunburn, but also in the winter when those rays are hidden behind thick clouds. In general, applying sunscreen is important because it prevents skin cancer and early signs of aging. But on top of that, your skin is much more sensitive to the sun if you apply a leave-on acne treatment, such as salicylic acid, glycolic acid, mandelic acid, retinoids, and benzoyl peroxide. 

That being said, if you’re acne-prone, you’ve probably had a rough time finding a sunscreen that doesn’t make you break out. Most sunscreens can be heavy, sticky and filled with pore-clogging ingredients. But that doesn’t mean you should skip the sunscreen! You just have to find a sunscreen that works well for your skin.

Best sunscreen for acne prone skin

9 things to know about sunscreen

As a skincare company, we know sunscreen can be a very frustrating and confusing product. There are many different things to consider: our health, ocean health, different SPFs, different actives, etc. So with that in mind, here are eight things you need to know about sunscreen:

  1. Non-comedogenic: The first thing you should pay attention to when looking for sunscreens is whether it says “non-comedogenic” or “specifically formulated for acne-prone skin” on the bottle. Non-comedogenic means that the product doesn't contain ingredients that are known to clog pores. Most sunscreen companies have special products formulated specifically for acne-prone skin, so always look for those. Pro tip: Even if it says “facial sunscreen”, you can also use it on the body.
  2. Drug Facts: If you look at any product that advertises itself as sun protection, it should have a drug facts panel, just like your bottle of Tylenol does. If your sunscreen does not have a Drug Facts Panel, the manufacturer is already not following FDA rules, and so you should probably steer clear. An important thing to note is, as a drug, sunscreens are required to list their Inactive Ingredients in alphabetical order, not in order of descending predominance like foods and cosmetics do. The first ingredient you see listed is probably not the most plentiful in the formula.
  3. Chemical vs. Physical sunscreens: These terms refer to the “active” ingredients in sunscreen; the ingredients that actually protect from UV rays. Chemical refers to most of the ingredients, which include things like Oxybenzone, Homosalate, Octinoxate and Avobenzone. These work by absorbing into the skin, where they then convert UV energy from light to heat, which dissipates from the body. This is the reason that sunscreen labels tell you to apply 15 minutes before sun exposure, and why it is critical to reapply, as these ingredients do wear off after a while. Physical sunscreen actives work by sitting on the surface of the skin and reflecting, or scattering, UV rays. There are only two physical ingredients, and you’ve probably also heard them referred to as “mineral.” Those ingredients are Titanium Dioxide and Zinc Oxide. Because they work differently, they do not need time to absorb, and the need to reapply is not because they become inactive, but because they may be rubbed off over time.
  4. Ingredients to Avoid:  Particular ingredients to watch out for are Oxybenzone, Octinoxate, Octocrylene and Homosalate. Physical actives can also be problematic if they are in “nano” sized particles. This is one bit of information you won’t find on the Drug Facts Panel, but most companies will be happy to tell you if they use nano-sized ingredients. Keep in mind that mineral sunscreen ingredients are white, which means they can sometimes leave a white cast to the skin. Ultimately, we hope most people make the choice to look a little paler instead of like a lobster!
  5. What is Broad Spectrum? Broad Spectrum refers to the ability of the product to protect your skin from both UVA and UVB rays. You definitely want to use Broad Spectrum sunscreen, as UVA rays are largely responsible for photoaging, and UVB rays are the ones that cause sunburn, and both types of rays can lead to skin cancer.
  6. Water Resistant: Gone are the days when a sunscreen can claim to be waterproof. The FDA doesn’t allow this designation any longer, and instead has only three levels of water resistance: If your sunscreen does not say it’s water resistant, you can safely assume that it isn’t. No claim about water resistance is the first level of protection…none. The next level is Water Resistant 40 Minutes. This means that you can be in and out of the water for 40 minutes and stay protected, but after 40 minutes, you need to reapply. The highest level of water resistance is Water Resistant 80 Minutes, which means that in and out of the water, you get 80 minutes of protection before you need to reapply. A good thing to remember is if you dry your face or body with a towel, you have removed your sunscreen and need to reapply.
  7. Expiration dates: Most sunscreens have an expiration date, and if yours does, you should make every attempt to finish it before that date. This is especially important with chemical actives, because they degrade over time. If your sunscreen does not have an expiration date, it means that the formula has been in on-going stability testing in a third-party laboratory for over 3 years and has shown no changes in effectiveness over that time. In these cases, the FDA recommends that you attempt to use your sunscreen within 3 years of first opening it.
  8. SPF numbers: The science behind SPF numbers is quite complex, and regardless of the number on the front, all sunscreens should be reapplied every 2 hours when you’re outdoors. In fact, an SPF 15 protects you from nearly 93% of UV rays, but jumping up to an SPF 30 protects from nearly 97%. If you go higher, up to SPF 50, the protection increases only slightly over 1%, to 98%. Nothing, regardless of the number, protects from 100% of UV rays. Dermatologists recommend everyone wear SPF 30 on a daily basis, and practice safe sun exposure when outdoors in the sun. And don’t forget to…
  9. REAPPLY: Even with physical sunscreen actives, you aren’t getting full protection after 2 hours, and this is especially true with chemical actives. The FDA and dermatologists recommend everyone reapply their sunscreen every 2 hours when outdoors, or more often if you are in water or sweating.  

Best sunscreen for acne prone skin

Acne-safe Sunscreens

  1. Brush on Block (for the face) is a mineral powder sunscreen that comes in a self-dispensing brush and is refillable. It’s SPF 30, Broad Spectrum (protects from UVA and UVB rays), and water resistant for 80 minutes. It comes in Translucent (which works for all skin tones) and Touch of Tan (which gives a hint of warmth to light and medium skins). Brush On Block does contain small amounts of Safflower Oil and Stearic Acid, both in powder form, which means it isn’t safe for people with folliculitis. Even if you’re wearing makeup, you can just brush it on like a finishing powder. It’s easy to apply to those overlooked places like the hair part, tops of the ears, tops of the feet and back of the neck. And because it’s translucent, it can be worn by men and children as well, without looking as if you have applied makeup.
  2. Pacifica Beauty (for the body) uses mineral actives and cleaner ingredients overall than many other sunscreens on the market.
  3. BeautyCounter (for the body) makes amazing mineral sunscreens in lotion or spray form.
  4.  Love Sun Body (for the body) is great for anyone who’s in-and-out of the water often, as it is a mineral active, water-resistant 80 minutes, lotion for the body.

Folliculitis-safe Sunscreens

  1. CōTZ the Healthier Sunscreen (for the face) is a mineral sunscreen that keeps your skin safe from harmful UVA-UVB rays.
  2. Equate Sport Lotion SPF 50 (for the body) is a great, folliculitis-safe sunscreen that can safely be applied to the body.

The bottom line: Sunscreen is incredibly important for preventing cancer and other forms of damage to the skin, and if you use an active acne-treatment, then it’s even more important to protect yourself. Sunscreen is a confusing thing to understand, but by learning how to read a sunscreen label, you are well on your way to providing excellent protection for your skin.

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