Summer is full of frustrating dilemmas: melted makeup, ingrown hairs on your bikini line, a short-lived spray tan. SPF-related breakouts are another hot weather beauty quandary that causes many people to stray from applying sun protection altogether for fear it may lead to acne (please, don’t do this). Sunscreen is still important, even if you have acne-prone skin, which is why finding a formula with ingredients that don’t irritate your already reactive skin is crucial.
As chemist, esthetician, and founder of eponymous acne skin care line Marie Veronique says, foregoing sun protection can actually backfire when it comes to your breakouts. “Lack of SPF protection will increase the generation of free radicals that attack cells and cell structures, thus increasing inflammation,” Veronique tells TZR. Inflammation is also the root cause of many skin problems and can contribute to acne, specifically inflammatory acne. If you’re committed to protecting your skin but would rather not deal with breakouts, it’s all about choosing the right sunscreen formula, and being able to navigate various sunscreen ingredients. Keep reading to learn how to pick the right SPF for your acne-prone skin.
Sunscreen For Acne-Prone Skin: Physical Vs. Chemical SPF
First things first: it’s important to distinguish between chemical and physical sunscreen formulas. According to Veronique, the word “sunscreen” — as opposed to “sunblock” — is the tip off. “Chemical sunscreens are called ‘sunscreens’ and protect the skin by absorbing UVB rays, lowering energy levels, and releasing energy as heat.” They do this through chemicals like octisalate, homosalate, oxybenzone, and avobenzone, among others. Mineral versions, on the other hand, are called ‘physical sunblocks’ because they reflect (or block) UV rays. They’re made of zinc oxide, titanium dioxide, or a mix of both.
For those with acne-prone skin, a physical (or mineral) sunblock is considered less irritating (and less inflammatory) than its chemical counterpart. “If you use a chemical sunscreen, you’re potentially increasing the irritation inflammation cycle that shows up as breakouts,” notes Veronique. And, get this: Veronique says that chemical sunscreens actually break down in the presence of UV, which can ultimately cause even more free radical generation than if you used no protection at all (#mindblown).
Therefore, if your skin is sensitive and prone to breakouts, it’s wise to opt for mineral sunblocks, and stick to a formula that uses zinc oxide or a combo of zinc oxide and titanium dioxide (versus a titanium dioxide-only), as zinc oxide ensures you’re protected against both UVA and UVB rays. Of course, a zinc formula can leave a tell-tale white cast, so if you have a darker skin tone, look for a tinted formula to prevent that unwanted ghostly pallor.
Sunscreen For Acne-Prone Skin: What To Look For & What To Avoid
So because physical sunscreens are gentler, they’re less likely to cause irritation for breakout-prone skin types, but here’s the catch: unlike chemical sunscreens (which are touted for their thin, wearable consistency), physical sunblocks are known to be thicker, sit on top of the skin, and not absorb as easily — aka an oily, acne-prone skin type’s worst nightmare. Thankfully, the beauty industry has come a long way from the days of thick, goopy sunscreens that leave behind a greasy residue and a gnarly white cast. Bottom line: You have options.
Board-certified dermatologist Dr. Todd Minars suggests looking for SPF formulas that are labeled non-comedogenic, meaning they’re designed not to clog pores. “Products that are labeled non-comedogenic shouldn’t contain ingredients that are known to clog the pores, but no two patients are going to respond and react uniformly in all instances,” he says. “That being said, the goal is to stay within the universe of ‘less likely to cause acne’ products, which will often be products labeled ‘non-comedogenic.’”
Dr. Minars also says to try to steer clear of silicones in your SPF products. While they’re commonly used because they're water-resistant, affordable, and generally considered "low hazard" for human use, they can trap debris, dirt, bacteria, and sweat, which can cause issues if you have acne-prone skin. Instead, in addition to zinc oxide, he says to look for formulas that call out hyaluronic acid, a humectant that helps the skin retain moisture, and niacinamide, a vitamin B3 that helps reduce the appearance of redness in the skin. Both of these will help to prevent skin dehydration (a condition that can cause your skin to produce more oil to moisturize dry patches, and thus clog your pores — a vicious, but common, cycle).
Worried that your SPF is contributing to breakouts? Dr. Minars explains that you’ll know you’re experiencing SPF-related skin sensitivity if you have skin discoloration (redness), itchiness, a slight burning or a stinging irritation, dryness (with or without flaking or peeling), a general tautness, and the presence of more acne breakouts after application. If you’re noticing any of these symptoms — which can either occur immediately, making it easier to connect the dots, or a few days later — it might be time to switch to a physical sunblock.
Check out a few of the best physical sunscreen options on the market right now.
We only include products that have been independently selected by TZR's editorial team. However, we may receive a portion of sales if you purchase a product through a link in this article.
Nuria’s SPF checks all the boxes: it’s non-comedogenic, fragrance-free, offers broad-spectrum SPF 30, and has a matte finish. To top it all off, its formula includes peach flower and euphrasia extracts to help reduce the damage from UV exposure.
Reapplying SPF on oily skin just got easier with this brush-on mineral option from CLEARSTEM. Not only can it be used to ensure your skin is protected all day, but because it’s in powder form (and contains green tea), it’ll help control your oil throughout the day, too.
You won’t find greasiness or a white residue with this plant-based SPF. Best part? It actually helps restore sun-damaged skin with proprietary natural ingredients only grown on Thrive’s regenerative farms in Costa Rica.
For a lightweight, quick-absorbing SPF that offers broad-spectrum protection, look no further than this pick from Ghost Democracy. 20% zinc oxide blends with niacinamide and artichoke leaf extract for an antioxidant-rich formula that protects, soothes, and reduces the look of pores.
Sensitive skin types, rejoice! Here’s a zinc oxide-only formula that goes on sheer and has a soothing, 100% natural rose scent. What’s more, it protects against blue light from digital screens, too.
This SPF 35 is not only a great non-nano zinc formula, but it’s also incredibly hydrating thanks to the added aloe vera and hyaluronic acid. It also has a subtle tint, so it blends it well to a wide range of skin tones. Just be sure to let it dry thoroughly so you don’t transfer it to your clothing.
A handy mineral stick formula that leaves zero white cast? This derm-beloved brand nails it with this silky titanium dioxide and zinc combo, which also could not be easier to reapply throughout the day (because yes, you have to reapply your SPF in order to get all-day sun protection).