Ah, the internal tug-of-war of choosing between what works best versus what doesn’t cause breakouts. But what if you didn’t have to choose?
When we talk about sunscreen in the skincare world, we divide it into two main categories: physical sunscreens and chemical sunscreens. If this already sounds complicated, hang in there, we’ve got you covered. (Literally.)
Physical sunscreens — otherwise known as mineral sunscreens — work by physically reflecting the ultraviolet rays from your skin’s surface to prevent skin damage. They typically include ingredients like zinc oxide and titanium oxide.
Chemical sunscreens use ingredients like octyl methoxycinnamate, oxybenzone, homosalate, octinoxate, and/or avobenzone (We know. It’s a mouthful.) to absorb the ultraviolet rays, acting as a sponge that prevents damage.
Okay, okay, so sunscreens work differently. But which is the best choice? Well, that depends. Let’s lay out the pros and cons of each.
The benefit of purely mineral sunscreens is that they contain ‘natural’ ingredients and are less irritating for sensitive skin. The downside is that they are usually thicker, harder to spread and often leave a white residue on the skin. No one wants a chalky look, so you may require more elbow grease to blend them in.
Chemical sunscreen ingredients, on the other hand, are much easier to create in more elegant formulations such as lotions, gels and sprays and are generally more palatable. The downside is that for many of us, these chemicals can be irritating, allergenic and can cause stinging when they get in our eyes.
There is also some controversy as to whether oxybenzone (a common chemical sunscreen ingredient) might be absorbed systemically, becoming an endocrine disruptor. While it has not been scientifically proven, many sunscreen manufacturers have begun eliminating oxybenzone from their formulations out of an abundance of caution.
So, if you’re basing your decision purely on the type and feel of your sunscreen, it depends on your personal preference. However, our chief dermatologist, Dr. Schaffran, explains there are other considerations that should come into play.
SPF, also known as sun protection factor, is a measure of how well a sunscreen works to prevent sunburn (more specifically, damage from UVB rays, which cause burns). The American Academy of Dermatology recommends at least an SPF of 30. A higher SPF number can give slightly more protection, but a higher number won’t make a huge difference. What will make a huge difference is remembering to reapply every 1-2 hours and after swimming or sweating.
SPF is only a measure of the sunscreen’s protection from UVB rays, not UVA rays. UVA rays are sometimes known as “aging rays.” These rays won’t cause sunburns but still damage your skin and contribute to age spots, wrinkles, and premature aging, not to mention skin cancer. Ever heard of applying sunscreen while indoors? This is because UVA rays are not blocked by window glass. Sure, you won’t get a sunburn through a window, but your skin can still accumulate invisible damage via UVA rays.
“In order to ensure the sunscreen you are choosing protects against both UVB and UVA rays you should look to see that the bottle of sunscreen says ‘broad spectrum’ coverage,” Dr. Schaffran advises. This means that the sunscreen will offer adequate protection from both UVA and UVB rays.
“The other ingredients in sunscreens, known as inactive ingredients, vary tremendously from one product to the next, and these are generally what make one product feel or smell different than the other,” says Dr. Schaffran. “Some formulations are more moisturizing for dry skin and some are lighter and oil-free for acne-prone skin. Some even include other additives like antioxidants for added skin protection.”
Our sunscreen recommendations for acne-prone skin
“When it comes to acne-prone skin, I recommend using sunscreens that are formulated specifically for the skin of the face, ensuring that the formulation is oil-free and non-comedogenic,” says Dr. Schaffran. “There are many good options that are purely mineral sunscreens and some that include chemical active ingredients.”
Here are our dermatologist-recommended choices in each category:
Pure Mineral Sunscreens:
ISDIN Eryfotona Actinica Mineral Sunscreen SPF 50+
A 100% mineral-based sunscreen with a lightweight consistency and broad spectrum UVA/UVB protection. It doesn’t feel greasy and is formulated with DNA repairosomes (which act to repair DNA damage) and Vitamin E (an antioxidant).
EltaMD UV Clear Tinted Face Sunscreen Broad Spectrum SPF 46
This is a great sunscreen recommended by a lot of dermatologists. It helps calm and protect sensitive skin types prone to both acne and rosacea. It’s lightweight and has a silky feel.
Supergoop Matte Screen – 100% Mineral Broad Spectrum SPF 40 Sunscreen
This is a water-resistant product that absorbs easily and is perfect for all skin types, including sensitive skin. It also functions well as a makeup primer, smoothing the skin’s surface and minimizing the look of pores. It masks the white cast from a 100% mineral formula using a translucent tint, allowing it to blend across a broader range of skin tones.
Dermalogica Invisible Physical Defence Sunscreen SPF 30
An elegant, smooth lotion that blends easily. It also includes green tea as an added antioxidant and is suitable for a wide range of skin tones.
Elta MD UV Clear Broad Spectrum SPF 46
This product is similar to the mineral tinted Elta product mentioned above but has a mix of zinc with chemical sunscreen ingredients, making it easier to spread and blend in without the tint. It’s both lightweight and oil-free, making it ideal for acne-prone or sensitive skin.
La Roche-Posay Anthelios Light Fluid Face Sunscreen SPF 50+
This is a lightweight, matte finish fluid formulated with antioxidants. It’s fast-absorbing and great for acne-prone skin of all skin tones.
Cetaphil Pro Dermacontrol Oil Absorbing Moisturizer with SPF 30
This product is light, oil-free, has no added fragrance and absorbs quickly without clogging pores. It also features Micropearl technology, which absorbs surface oil to reduce shine, leaving a matte finish. This makes it a top choice for people with oily skin.
Glossier Invisible Shield SPF 35
This formula feels like a serum with no greasy residue. It works well under makeup and is terrific for acne-prone skin.