Medically reviewed by Aimee Paik, MD
Written by Apostrophe Team
Last updated 1/6/2023
When you’re looking for sunscreen, the drugstore aisle can seem like a labyrinth of products. But when you have acne prone skin, it’s difficult to discern which product is best for your unique skin.
Consider this guide your cheat sheet to all things sunscreen so you can choose a product that will keep your skin burn and blemish-free. Read on: the best sunscreen for clogged pores, blemish prone skin, and those who experience acne is awaiting you.
You’ve heard it from everyone, from your mom to your dermatologist—sunscreen is crucial. Don’t believe those sunscreen myths telling you otherwise—but why? To understand sunscreen, you need to understand ultraviolet light. These shorter wavelengths are invisible to the human eye compared to the visible light of rays of sunshine.
But just because they’re invisible doesn’t mean they can be ignored. These ultraviolet rays of light emit radiation that can damage your DNA. Best case scenario? Premature aging and a painful sunburn. Worst case scenario? Skin cancer.
There are three different types of ultraviolet light:
Ultraviolet A (UVA) – UVA makes up 95 percent of the UV radiation that reaches the earth. UVA can penetrate the skin deeper than Ultraviolet B (UVB). As a result, UVA causes unwanted signs of aging, including fine lines, wrinkles and dark spots and has been linked to the development of melanoma.
Ultraviolet B (UVB) – UVB is the type of ultraviolet light you might be most familiar with. It causes sunburns and even damage on the cellular level to your DNA. Thankfully, the ozone layer in our atmosphere absorbs 95 percent of UVB light. But the UVB rays that do reach the Earth’s surface are responsible for the most common forms of skin cancer.
Ultraviolet C (UVC) – UVC light is the most harmful type of ultraviolet radiation; however, our atmosphere completely absorbs these UV rays.
Skin conditions caused by sun damage, especially by the harm that both UVA and UVB rays cause to our DNA, include skin cancer. That’s why our bodies have melanin. Melanin is a natural skin pigment that darkens our hair and skin. The amount of melanin in our skin changes our sensitivity to UVA light. Think of it as your body’s natural sunscreen, partially shielding the sun’s rays from within your skin cells.
Although people with darker skin have more melanin and a bit more natural skin shielding, everyone needs sunscreen, no exceptions.
Even the darkest skin tones only have an SPF of 13, which is well below the recommended amount, as we’ll discuss later in this article. In sum: melanin is not enough to protect yourself in the long run from the damaging effects of the sun’s rays. Following other sun safety tips, like wearing a hat when you’re outside, in addition to applying sunscreen, will offer even further protection.
And that’s especially true for those with acne prone skin.
When your skin seems to break out each time you introduce it to a new skincare product, it’s easy to want to avoid SPF if you’re weary of greasy or heavy sunscreens. But there are a few very important reasons why those with acne prone skin should definitely apply sunscreen every single day:
Sunscreen can help protect against darkening acne scars – When pimples leave dark marks on your skin, the last thing you want is to make the scar more noticeable. The sun’s UV rays actually darken skin pigmentation, especially scars. Applying sunscreen allows these marks to fade instead of becoming hyperpigmented through UV radiation.
Sunscreen can help reduce burns when you’re using acne treatments – Topical acne treatments can sometimes make your skin even more sensitive to the sun. Sunburns can cause distress to the skin and symptoms such as flaking and peeling which can lead to even more breakouts.
Let’s explore the criteria for choosing a sunscreen for acne prone skin so that you can protect your skin without worrying about burns or breakouts.
When you stroll down the sunscreen aisle, there are plenty of products to choose from—different SPFs, sprays and lotions, and more sunscreen brands than you can imagine. It’s easy to get overwhelmed, but there are actually only two different types of sunscreen to choose from: mineral sunscreen and chemical sunscreen.
Both are classified based on their coverage, meaning how well they protect your skin from ultraviolet light. Sunscreen labeled broad-spectrum offers protection from both UVA rays and UVB light, which is a must.
Mineral sunscreens are made from inorganic filters that reflect, scatter, or absorb ultraviolet light. Mineral sunscreens reflect 5-10% of the sun’s rays and the rest are absorbed and translated into heat. Common ingredients include:
Chemical sunscreens are made from organic compounds that absorb ultraviolet rays and convert their energy into longer, lower, and, therefore, less damaging wavelengths. Common ingredients in chemical sunscreens include:
For added UVA protection, look for the ingredients:
Terephthalylidene dicamphor sulfonic acid
There are also hybrid sunscreens (like Apostrophe’s 'Screen) which offer the best of both mineral and chemical sunscreen benefits so your skin can enjoy the protection it needs.
Dr. Robyn Gmyrek, MD, a board-certified dermatologist at Park View Laser Dermatology, suggests avoiding emollient-rich ingredients such as:
The best sunscreen for acne-prone skin isn’t full of heavy oils or butters.
So what should you look for instead?
Apostrophe’s medical director Dr. Aimee Paik recommends those with acne prone skin to reach for products that offer an oil-free and lightweight formula.
Dermatologist-recommended sunscreen for acne leans towards an oil-free and lightweight formula. Lightweight sunscreens won’t clog your pores or feel heavy on your skin.
When choosing sunscreens, you might want to choose a moisturizing sunscreen or a moisturizer with SPF. Why? Moisturizers help in four key ways:
1. They help mitigate the epidermal (skin) barrier impairment that could otherwise result in sensitive skin and irritation.
2. They help prevent hyperpigmentation from skin irritation and inflammation, especially in people with a darker skin tone.
3. They help reduce the irritation that some people might experience from sunscreen.
4. Many acne topical treatments can be drying, so using a moisturizing sunscreen can help keep your skin balanced.
There’s a balancing act between choosing sunscreens that can effectively moisturize your skin without clogging your pores with heavy ingredients. But the right moisturizing SPF might make all the difference in your skin’s health.
Dr. Gmyrek recommends avoiding potentially irritating fragrances, essential oils, and sodium lauryl sulfates.
Another common source of irritants for acne prone skin? Expired sunscreen. Although it may be tempting to re-use your sunscreen from last year’s vacation, you should toss it if it’s past its expiration date. The filters in expired sunscreen have already begun to break down, which reduces its efficacy and can cause irritation.
Your next consideration should be the strength of the sunscreen you purchase. Sunscreen strength is measured by its sun protection factor or SPF. SPF measures UVB absorption, meaning how well the sunscreen protects your skin from the sun’s UVB rays.
Manufacturers calculate SPF by dividing 100 by the rate of UVB absorption and subtracting that resulting number from 100. To translate that:
SPF 15 – SPF 15 correlates with 93.3 percent of UVB absorption.
SPF 30 – SPF 30 correlates with 96.7 percent of UVB absorption.
SPF 45 – SPF 45 correlates with 97.8 percent of UVB absorption.
SPF 50 – SPF 50 correlates with 98 percent of UVB absorption.
The methods we use to measure UVA protection are newer. The UVA protective factor (UVA-PF) is to UVA what SPF is to UVB, meaning that it evaluates how effective the sunscreen is against UVA rays. Luckily, the FDA requires that broad-spectrum sunscreens use UVA protection proportional to its UVB protection, so higher SPF broad-spectrum sunscreens have an equivalent higher UVA protection.
You may be wondering, “What SPF should I use?” Choosing a higher SPF of at least 30 and broad-spectrum sunscreen will protect your skin from the photosensitivity caused by some acne treatments and from worsening hyperpigmentation. These are even more reasons to find the perfect sunscreen.
Tip: If hyperpigmentation is a particular concern, trust Dr. Paik’s advice: “Zinc oxide is the best sunscreen ingredient for preventing hyperpigmentation." Check the ingredients list on your sunscreens to ensure you’re finding what you need.
Now that you’ve discovered how to find the best sunscreen for acne-prone skin, there’s still more you can do to keep your skin at its healthiest. To help you protect your skin, here are 10 more sunscreen best practices recommended by the American Academy of Dermatology Association and the Skin Cancer Foundation:
1. Choose a broad-spectrum sunscreen with both UVA and UVB protection SPF 30 or higher.
2. Use a water-resistance sunscreen when swimming or sweating.
3. Apply ⅓ - ½ a teaspoon for your face, neck, and ears and reapply frequently.
4. Find shade when the sun is at its peak between 10 AM and 4 PM.
5. Shield your body from the sun with clothing and hats.
6. Use an SPF of at least 30 or higher if possible and apply more frequently around surfaces that reflect more sun, such as water, snow, and sand.
7. Get Vitamin D through your diet or supplements rather than through sun exposure.
8. Avoid tanning beds.
9. Practice yearly skin checks to look for signs of skin cancer.
10. Protect sensitive areas such as your face and eyelids.
With these best practices and mindful sunscreen shopping, you can protect your skin from both breakouts and burns.
Sunscreen is your all-around skincare hero. You protect against both acne and aging, leaving your skin looking healthy and radiant both now and in the future.
Ready to take the next steps on your skincare journey? Apostrophe can connect you with a board-certified dermatologist to assess your skincare concerns and craft a personalized skin care treatment plan to finally get the glowing skin you deserve. Even better, we’ll deliver those products right to your door, and we even have our very own acne-safe, sensitive face sunscreen, 'Screen!
NASA. Ultraviolet Waves. https://science.nasa.gov/ems/10_ultravioletwaves
Merk Manual. Overview of Sunlight and Skin Damage. https://www.merckmanuals.com/home/skin-disorders/sunlight-and-skin-damage/overview-of-sunlight-and-skin-damage
National Center for Biotechnology Information. Comprehensive Review of Ultraviolet Radiation and the Current Status on Sunscreens. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3460660/
National Center for Biotechnology Information. Light, Including Ultraviolet. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2835849/
National Center for Biotechnology Information. Comparison of UVA Protection Factor Measurement Protocols. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7244352/
National Center for Biotechnology Information. Sunscreening Agents. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3543289/
NBC. 11 best sunscreens for acne-prone skin of 2020. https://www.nbcnews.com/shopping/skin-care/best-sunscreen-acne-n1232737
Skin Cancer Foundation. Breaking Down Broad-Spectrum Protection: Why Your Sunscreen Needs to Have it. https://www.skincancer.org/blog/broad-spectrum-protection-sunscreen/
Journal of Drugs in Dermatology. Post-Inflammatory Hyperpigmentation: A Review of Treatment Strategies. https://jddonline.com/post-inflammatory-hyperpigmentation-a-review-of-treatment-strategies
National Center for Biotechnology Information. Clinical and Biological Characterization of Skin Pigmentation Diversity and Its Consequences on UV Impact. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6163216/
National Center for Biotechnology Information. Sunscreening Agents. Efficacy, Safety, and Subject Satisfaction of a Specified Skin Care Regimen to Cleanse, Medicate, Moisturize, and Protect the Skin of Patients Under Treatment for Acne Vulgaris. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4295855/
American Academy of Dermatology Association. Sunscreen FAQs. https://www.aad.org/public/everyday-care/sun-protection/sunscreen-patients/sunscreen-faqs
Plos One. Application of SPF moisturisers is inferior to sunscreens in coverage of facial and eyelid regions. https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0212548
Skin Cancer Foundation: Ask the Expert: Sunscreen and Acne. https://www.skincancer.org/blog/ask-the-expert-clearer-acne-sunscreen/
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