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You’ve likely heard it time and time again: Don't skip sunscreen if you want to prevent dark spots, sun damage and signs of aging. The only caveat: Thick formulas can congest your pores, which lead to pimples. “Sunscreen is important because many acne medications make your skin sensitive to sunburn,” says Joshua Zeichner, MD, director of cosmetic and clinical research at Mount Sinai Hospital. “The right sunscreen can give a mattifying effect and protect the skin without worsening breakouts."
According to dermatologists, it is essential to wear sunscreen every day, and especially so when you have acne-prone skin. "Our faces are constantly exposed to UV rays and UV rays increase the risk of skin cancer and skin aging," says Hadley King, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City.
Broad-spectrum sunscreen is known to help fight UVA rays, which cause signs of aging and discoloration. This is especially helpful for those with acne-prone skin using products that contain alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs), beta-hydroxy acids (BHAs) like salicylic acid for acne treatments or retinol.
While it’s tempting to skip sunblock if you have oily, acne-prone skin, you could inadvertently cause long term skin issues including:
- Skin cancer: UVB rays can cause sunburns and malignant melanoma, according to a report from the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics.
- Photosensitivity: A “heightened skin sensitivity or an unusual reaction when your skin is exposed to UV radiation from sunlight or a tanning bed,” according to the Skin Cancer Foundation.
There are two reasons why sunscreen-related breakouts occur:
- Occlusion of the pores by comedogenic materials: Heavy, oily sunscreens can block the pores and cause breakouts.
- Sensitivity reaction to UV-blocking ingredients: "An ingredient in the sunscreen — either an active ingredient, preservative or emollient — can cause an irritant contact dermatitis, allergic contact dermatitis or other hypersensitivity reaction. This could show up as an itchy rash or as little bumps,” says King.
How to prevent acne while wearing sunscreen
The good news is that pimples are avoidable if you keep a few pro-tips in mind when selecting the best sunscreen for acne-prone skin.
First up: Check the label of the sunblock and make sure it says non-comedogenic — this tells you the formulation has been tested and shown not to clog pores, explains Robyn Gmyrek, MD, a board-certified dermatologist at Park View Laser Dermatology. Two popular non-comedogenic sunscreen ingredients to look out for are zinc oxide and titanium dioxide.
Next, pay attention to both active and inactive ingredients in the sunscreen, which can contribute to clogged pores that lead to acne. "The oils in the SPF can clog the pores, while the mineral ones can irritate the sensitive skin types, inflaming the skin leading to inflammatory lesions," says Patricia Wexler, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and founder of Wexler Dermatology in New York.
The pros recommend you stay away from sunscreens with emollient-rich ingredients like:
- Vitamin E
- Mineral and soybean oils
- And cocoa butter
Wexler also suggests anyone with acne-prone skin stick to sunscreens free of fragrances, silicones and sodium lauryl sulfates, which can irritate skin or clog pores.
Also, be wary of expiration dates and how you store your sunblock. "If the sunscreen has expired or the ingredients have been exposed to direct sunlight and high temperatures, then the heat and sun can break down the chemicals and render them ineffective and potentially irritating to the skin," says King.
Another way to prevent pimples is to wash your face twice daily with a gentle cleanser, especially after sun exposure. "Apply a moisturizer with hyaluronic acid or niacinamide (Vitamin B3) to decrease inflammation and restore the skin's barrier function," says Wexler. She also advises that acne-prone skin be treated with a salicylic acid lotion or spot treatment where necessary — apply a charcoal mask if you are prone to comedonal acne or call your dermatologist if papules and pustules arise.
Ahead, the dermatologists we consulted recommend their favorite chemical and mineral sunscreens that won’t cause breakouts at various price points.
What sunscreen is best for acne-prone skin?
King recommends this non-comedogenic, sensitivity-free, oil-free, paraben-free and fragrance-free sunscreen for acne-prone skin. "With zinc oxide, hyaluronic acid, lactic acid and niacinamide, it helps calm and protect sensitive skin types prone to breakouts associated with acne and rosacea," she says.
Gymrek and Wexler are also fans of this SPF that contains niacinamide (AKA Vitamin B3), which helps the skin retain moisture and lactic acid, helping "decrease shine and clears pores," making this lightweight sunscreen "great for acne-prone and sensitive skin." "It's light and dries quickly, so you can slather it on your face, neck and chest before getting dressed all year round. This is my daily sunscreen and it's great for acne-prone skin," add Gmyrek.
Neutrogena’s sunscreen is "an ultralight lotion that is oil-free and won't break you out. It is specially formulated for people with oily and acne-prone skin," says Zeichner. It also contains one of his favorite active ingredients: avobenzone, which he describes as an "organic sunscreen filter that is extremely effective in providing broad-spectrum UV protection." Gmyrek is also a fan of this "light-yet-water-resistant" sunscreen that is both non-comedogenic, oil-free and fragrance-free.
"This all-mineral sunscreen has a light formula that leaves skin with a matte appearance and won't block the pores," says Zeichner. There's also squalane, which has anti-inflammatory properties and ceramides to help maintain your skin's moisture balance.
King recommends this 100-percent mineral broad-spectrum SPF 50+ sunblock that's water-resistant for up to 40 minutes. "It contains antioxidants and DNA repair enzymes, which means it's repairing and protecting at the same time. The texture is lightweight and easy to use," she says. The vitamin-E enriched sunscreen for acne-prone skin also comprises 11-percent zinc oxide, so you don't have to worry about this sunblock leaving behind a white cast on your face. “Zinc oxide is a mineral UV blocker that also has a soothing effect on the skin. In fact, it is the main ingredient used in diaper rash creams to protect babies' bottoms,” adds Zeichner.
King calls this sunscreen "a terrific option for oily and acne-prone skin" and notes that it's excellent for reapplication and touch-ups "without messing up your makeup." "It absorbs excess oil so it can serve a dual purpose as a finishing powder, actually extending the life of your makeup, and providing sun protection. And it's portable, convenient and won't leave white residue on your clothes," she says.
The ingredients found in this sunscreen are beneficial for oily, acne-prone skin. "It's all mineral — zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, as well as antioxidants to protect from free radicals — and protects from infrared rays. And it's great for body areas too, and easy to apply to acne-prone areas like the shoulders and chest," King adds.
When you only have a few minutes to get ready for your next Zoom meeting, use your fingers to blend out this 5-in-1 tinted moisturizer with SPF 45. Beyond the broad-spectrum sun protection, this acne-friendly sunscreen has over 20 good-for-you ingredients like Vitamin C for a brightening effect and peptides to help minimize the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. "It's a physical sunblock with zinc oxide and titanium dioxide and I like the lightweight consistency and coverage," says King.
King calls this vegan, cruelty-free and reef-safe sunscreen a "great option" for acne-prone skin. "It's a hydrating primer that contains hyaluronic acid, vitamin B5 and niacinamide to help boost moisture in the skin, sea lavender for antioxidant protection, and cocoa peptides to help protect from blue light," she says.
"I love this ultralight formula for its ease of application. It's rich in antioxidants for added protection, is fragrance- and paraben-free and great for acne-prone skin," says Wexler. This non-greasy sunscreen contains the brand's proprietary Cell-Ox Shield to help fight environmental skin damage. If you have acne-prone skin, add this sunscreen to your beach bag: The non-comedogenic SPF is water-resistant for up to 80 minutes.
Wexler recommends this "very thin liquid," 100-percent mineral sunscreen that is water-resistant for up to 80 minutes. This gentle formula is non-comedogenic, oil-free and hypoallergenic, para-aminobenzoic acid-free and fragrance-free, making it safe enough for someone with both sensitive skin and acne to wear daily. Just be sure to follow Zeichner's tip of applying a quarter-sized dollop of SPF to your face and reapply every two hours or immediately after heavy sweating or swimming.
"This sunscreen keeps skin dry, even in heat and humidity, making it great for oily, acne-prone skin," says Wexler. The water-resistant sunblock layers well with makeup and contains avobenzone, one of Zeichner's go-to active ingredients for SPF recommendations.
You don't have to get sweaty to wear a sunscreen formulated for outdoor activities, according to Gmyrek. She recommends those with acne-prone skin lookout for SPFs designed for sports because they "are usually more alcohol-based." Gmyrek's pick is made with benzyl alcohol, which has antimicrobial properties. This budget-friendly option offers protection from both UVA rays (which cause signs of aging) and skin-burning UVB rays.
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