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Can Sunscreen Make You Break Out?

The role of sunscreens in protecting our skin against UV rays is backed up by years of dedicated research, tons of scientific articles, and vivid public discourse.

However, the same discourse has posed an intriguing question: while effectively protecting our skin from the sun’s radiation, can sunscreen cause acne? Opinions on this matter differ substantially:

  • some are convinced that all sunscreens make them break out;
  • others believe that only certain sunscreens can be held responsible for such an effect;
  • some even say that sunscreens make their acne go away.

In this article, we will address the relationship between sunscreens, irritation, and acne, in particular, explore different sunscreen ingredients, types, and safe practices for acne-prone skin.

Sunscreens: Essential Protection or Acne Trigger?

Ultraviolet (UV) rays pose numerous risks. They can cause skin pigmentation and sunburn, and contribute to photoaging, wrinkles, and other skin issues.

For this reason, estheticians strongly recommend sunscreens, or SPFs (Sun Protection Factor). They protect our skin from UVB and the more insidious UVA rays with higher penetrating power.

Along with this skincare practice, though, it's common to hear complaints that SPF products can lead to breakouts. Sunscreens can cause breakouts, indeed.

However, this only happens when we don’t bother looking for the right products, reading about various ingredients that can potentially cause acne, and neglecting the best application practices.

Ingredients in Sunscreens That May Cause Breakouts

Sunscreens are nothing more or less than the ingredients that they are made of.
Professionally selected, natural ingredients soothe your skin, rarely leading to irritation or inflammation. However, artificial ingredients with lots of preservatives and abundant fragrance may cause inflammation, acne, and other serious health problems.

The following ingredients in sunscreen that cause acne are:

  • silicones;
  • oils (e.g., mineral oil, coconut oil);
  • cocoa butter;
  • beeswax;
  • preservatives;
  • flavorings.

Chemical sunscreens, also known as organic sunscreens, are more likely to cause breakouts. They act under the surface of your skin by penetrating deep inside skin layers – exactly the mechanism of action that is worse tolerated by dry and irritated skin.

On the contrary, physical (mineral) sun filters stay on the surface of your skin, effectively bouncing back all or most harmful elements from the environment. They don’t interact much with your skin and, therefore, are significantly less likely to cause irritation and acne.

Akt Therapy D-Luxe Daily Bronzer with SPF 30

Akt Therapy D-Luxe Daily Bronzer with SPF 30

Why Does Mineral Sunscreen Break Me Out?

If your skin develops acne even with a mineral sunscreen, then you are most likely making one of the following mistakes:

  • not selecting the optimal products (i.e., non-comedogenic sunscreens);
  • not following the recommended sunscreen application practices.

For healthy and acne-free skin, especially sensitive face skin, it’s critically important to acknowledge and avoid committing both mistakes.

Selecting the Optimal Products

All sunscreens can be classified into two large categories: comedogenic and non-comedogenic. Comedones are the enemies of your skin. They are the main precursors for acne. They form as a result of clogged pores, which, in turn, happen due to some sunscreens containing comedogenic ingredients: excessive oils, silicones, and preservatives.

Non-comedogenic sunscreens, on the other hand, consist of mostly lightweight formulations and contain ingredients that don’t cause comedones:
titanium dioxide – offers UV protection without irritating the skin;

  • zinc oxide – a mineral ingredient with broad-spectrum protection for sensitive skin;
  • silicones (such as dimethicone) – contribute to a non-greasy texture that helps prevent pore clogging;
  • glycerin – a humectant agent that is famous for drawing moisture into the skin;
  • niacinamide – anti-inflammatory agent, known for helping to calm the skin and keeping it clear from bacteria;
  • hyaluronic acid – a powerful hydrating agent that locks moisture inside pores.

To minimize the likelihood of breaking out from using an SPF, go for products with no or little fragrance and the lightest formulas possible. Less is more, therefore, opt for water, gel, and plant-based sunscreens, especially if you have dry skin prone to acne.

Akt Therapy Super Gloss with SPF 50

Akt Therapy Super Gloss with SPF 50

Following the Optimal Sunscreen Application Practices

To avoid skin problems, skincare experts recommend observing a few simple, yet very effective rules.

Apply sunscreen on clean skin devoid of any leftovers from other (oily) cosmetics, sweat, or dirt. For an acne-free output, you don’t want the ingredients in the sunscreen to enter into a chemical reaction with other skincare products.

Use a meager quantity of your favorite SPF, since an excess of even the very best product can trigger irritation on sensitive or acne-prone skin. Apply sunscreen using gentle, patting motions rather than rubbing it in vigorously.

Experts advise running the so-called patch testing first – applying a smidgen of an SPF to a selected skin area before using the product all over the body. Patch testing may take as long as 24 hours, but the result (early detection of product-skin incompatibilities) is always well worth the effort.

Consider applying a lightweight moisturizer first, and only then layering a mineral sunscreen on top. This can prevent your skin from overproducing oil, which is a known cause of comedones, inflammation, and acne.

Properly wash off the SPF filter in the evening. Properly cleansing the skin means completely washing off not only decorative cosmetics but also other impurities (dirt, sweat, etc.).

By following the above recommendations, along with using sunscreens with the right ingredients (e.g., with soothing and anti-inflammatory effects), you can avoid and even mitigate most skin health problems.

Woman with sunscreen swatch on her hand

The Key Takeaways

A face sunscreen that won't break you out is not a myth. If you follow the above guidelines on choosing the right product and following the best application practices, you are guaranteed to end up with acne-free results again and again.

Your skin deserves the best treatment, as it’s the largest bodily organ responsible for your overall health like nothing else. So, never stop prioritizing its care and protection, invest in quality sunscreens, and always stay informed about your skin's needs.

Most importantly, listen to your dermatologist’s advice. Their expertise is invaluable in ensuring you make the best choices for your unique skin type and conditions.

AKT Therapy