Does sunscreen cause acne?

We all know we should be wearing sunscreen, but which one is right for acne-prone skin?

Written by
Molly McLaughlin
Medically reviewed by
min read
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We all know we should be wearing sunscreen, but which one is right for acne-prone skin? The perfect sunscreen should protect you from the damaging effects of UVA and UVB rays while keeping you glowing and blemish-free.

To do that, it needs to be broad-spectrum with a high sun protection factor of SPF. Of course, when it comes to acne-prone skin, the right sunscreen should also be non-comedogenic (which means it won't block your pores).

There are 2 main categories that fit the bill: physical and chemical sunscreens. In this guide, we'll go through the pros and cons of each to help you decide which is a good fit for your skincare routine.

Whether you're a total expert or just getting started, there is a perfect sunscreen out there for you.

What's the difference between physical and chemical sunscreen?

The distinction between physical (also known as natural or mineral sunscreen) and chemical sunscreens is based on the active ingredients each uses to protect your skin from sun exposure.

Physical sunscreens use a fine layer of minerals, such as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, which sit on top of the skin and create a barrier to prevent sun damage. They are often recommended for those with acne-prone or sensitive skin that can be irritated by chemical sunscreens [1].

Physical sunscreens have been gaining popularity since the mid-2000s, thanks to the development of microfine oxides that make the barrier invisible to the naked eye.

Chemical sunscreens, on the other hand, use ingredients that are fully absorbed into the skin and convert UV radiation into heat that can pass back out of the body. The active ingredients in chemical sunscreen include avobenzone, homosalate, octocrylene, octisalate, octinoxate and oxybenzone.

These ingredients can make the products easier to apply but are potentially irritating for some people with sensitive or acne-prone skin.

Although, chemical formulations are quite advanced these days and many brands cater for even the most sensitive of skin with their chemical SPFs. This is the case with Software's Daily Facial Sunscreen SPF50, which is a chemical formula that is lightweight and non-greasy.

This facial sunscreen works for all skin types, provides an oil-free finish without clogging your pores and filters 98% of UV rays.

You can also find combined formulas with both chemical and physical filters available. These are popular as they provide very high levels of SPF, but can still contain some of the chemical filters that might not suit sensitive skin.

What are the pros and cons of each type of sunscreen?

Both mineral and chemical sunscreens offer adequate protection from UV rays, as long as they are applied correctly and have a high SPF. However, there are some differences between the 2 that may help you pick the best sunscreen for your needs.

Pros of physical sunscreen

  • It works from the moment it touches your skin
  • It is less likely to clog pores or irritate oily skin
  • It generally has a longer shelf life
  • It can be a better choice for those susceptible to redness or rosacea, as the minerals deflect rather than absorb the sun's heat

Cons of physical sunscreen

  • It needs to be reapplied more often because it washes and rubs off easily
  • It can leave a white cast, although there are modern tinted versions available to help avoid that and work on darker skin tones
  • Due to its thicker consistency, it can be more difficult to spread and require a larger quantity to cover your skin.

Research suggests that people tend to apply less mineral sunscreen, which can reduce the levels of protection from UV light, so make sure to use the recommended amount of your chosen product [2]. (It's probably more than you think!)

Pros of chemical sunscreen

  • It's thinner and easier to spread on your skin uniformly
  • You can apply less of it which means you don't need to restock as often
  • It doesn't wash off easily so you don't need to reapply as often as you would with physical sunscreen
  • It doesn't leave a white cast

Cons of chemical sunscreen

  • It usually needs to be applied around 20 minutes before sun exposure.
  • Some chemical sunscreens use ingredients that can have negative effects on marine life and coral reefs [3]

It's important to note that just because a sunscreen product is labelled as 'reef friendly' doesn't mean it is a mineral SPF. Words like 'reef safe' and 'reef friendly' are unregulated, so it's best to check the ingredients list.

What are the skin side effects of not wearing sunscreen?

It can be tempting to skip broad-spectrum sunscreen if you're in a rush or forget to reapply during a long day at the beach, but it is one of the most important steps in keeping your skin happy and healthy.

Apart from the obvious discomfort of a sunburn, the use of sunscreen has been found to help prevent skin cancer, including melanoma [4].

In fact, 2 in 3 Australians will be diagnosed with skin cancer in their lifetime, meaning sunscreen should be an essential daily habit.

Experts recommend regular applications of sunscreen to make sure you're protected (around every 2 hours), as well as using protective clothing and seeking shade from direct sunlight [2].

Does sunscreen clog pores?

The best sunscreen for you will depend on your skin type as there is a huge range of products within the world of physical and chemical sunscreens.

While older chemical sunscreen formulas were often comedogenic and could cause blocked pores, many modern formulations have rectified this to ensure these sunscreens aren't contributing to clogged pores (like our Software products!).

Mineral sunscreens are also designed to be non-comedogenic and can help keep your complexion oil-free, especially when used in conjunction with a cleanser and moisturiser suitable for acne-prone skin like those included in our Essential Skincare Routine.

Can sunscreen cause acne?

If you're using sunscreen that is comedogenic and as a result, is clogging your pores, this can lead to blackheads or whiteheads. Yes, your favourite formula could be causing the pesky acne breakouts you're experiencing.

The good news is that most chemical formulas are now designed to be non-comedogenic and can be used by those with acne-prone skin. Be sure to check your sunscreen formula and invest in a new product should your current one not be doing any favours for your skin.

Minerals sunscreen tends to be non-comedogenic by nature as they are oil-free, so it won't break you out.

Does sunscreen prevent wrinkles?

Sunscreen has benefited from the skincare boom in recent years, as it is associated with youthful-looking skin.

But does sunscreen really help with fine lines and pigmentation? According to an Australian study, daily sunscreen use reduced signs of premature ageing by 24% over 4 and a half years [5].

This means broad-spectrum sunscreen will help maintain your skin's elasticity and prevent dark spots, while also helping to avoid any possible negative interactions between the sun and your other skincare ingredients.

To reap the skin safety benefits of sunscreen, make sure your sunscreen hasn't expired and that you're layering it correctly in your morning skincare routine.

Should I stop using sunscreen if it causes acne?

The short answer is no. Not wearing sunscreen is never a good idea. In fact, it can end up making your acne worse in the long run.

So, what should you do if you find that your SPF is aggravating your acne? Our advice is simple: try a new product that meets the criteria we discussed before: an oil-free, non-comedogenic formula with nourishing ingredients that will both protect and replenish your skin.

Finding the right skincare for you is all about trial and error, and sunscreen is no exception —but you will eventually find the one.

Adding sunscreen to your skincare routine

If you're finding it tricky to incorporate SPF into your skincare routine, you probably just haven't found the right one yet. The sticky, slimy sunscreen of your childhood is no longer the only option, with plenty of new and improved formulas on the market.

Sunscreen should be the last skincare product you use before moving on to makeup (if you wear it). Follow your serums and moisturiser with an SPF product and you're good to go.

Ultimately, the best sunscreen is the one you love and use every day so no matter the formulation — whether it's chemical or physical — the important thing is that you use it.

Now get out there and slip, slop, slap!

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