Does physical 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
Table of contents

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 or SPF. Of course, when it comes to acne-prone skin, the right sunscreen should also be non-comedogenic (aka not block your pores or cause pimples).

There are two main categories of sunscreen that fit the bill — physical and chemical. 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 is physical 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.

Mineral 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.

Traditional mineral sunscreens often left a white residue, but many modern formulas are indistinguishable from their chemical counterparts.

What's the difference between physical and chemical sunscreens?

Chemical sunscreens 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 sunscreen ingredients can make the products thinner and easier to apply but are potentially irritating for some people with sensitive or acne-prone skin.

Although, the chemical formulations are quite advanced these days and many brands cater for even the most sensitive of skin with their chemical SPFs.

In fact, Software's Solar Fluid is designed to hydrate and soothe skin while also protecting it with a SPF50 formulation.

As far as chemical formulas go, Solar Fluid is lightweight, non-greasy and doesn't leave a white cast — so, you can be assured that it won't leave you with any pesky acne.

Chemical sunscreens are often sweat and water-resistant, while mineral sunscreens are technically longer lasting but are more easily removed.

This can be positive or negative depending on the situation, as you will need to reapply your mineral SPF after swimming or working out but otherwise may be able to last all day on a single application if not undertaking strenuous activities.

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 physical 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 two that may help you pick the best sunscreen for your needs.

First, the positives of mineral sunscreen. It works from the moment it touches the skin, unlike chemical sunscreens which usually need to be applied around 20 minutes before sun exposure.

Physical sunscreen is less likely to clog pores or irritate oily skin and generally has a longer shelf life. And, physical sunscreens can also be a better choice for those susceptible to redness or rosacea, as the minerals deflect rather than absorb the sun's heat.

On the environmental front, they are also the preferred choice as some chemical sunscreens use ingredients that can have negative effects on marine life and coral reefs.

Although all sunscreens sold in Australia are completely safe for human use, the accumulation of certain chemicals in the ocean via sunscreen is a real concern. Island nations such as Hawaii have even banned oxybenzone and octinoxate sunscreens in order to protect their coral reefs.

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.

When it comes to the downsides, mineral sunscreen needs to be reapplied more often, due to the fact it washes or rubs off easily. Physical sunscreen can also leave a white cast — we're all familiar with that zinc glow that is often left behind.

In saying this, there are modern tinted versions that are available to help avoid the white cast and work on darker skin tones.

Due to its thicker consistency, physical SPF 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. (It's probably more than you think!)

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.

In fact, two in three 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 two hours), as well as using protective clothing and seeking shade from direct sunlight.

Does physical sunscreen clog pores?

The best sunscreens for you will depend on your skin type as there is a huge range of products within the world of physical and chemical sunscreens. In general, chemical sunscreen ingredients are more likely to clog your pores as they are absorbed into the skin rather than sitting on top like a mineral sunscreen.

This can cause the skin to sweat more thanks to the trapped heat and in turn, lead to clogged pores.

For this reason, mineral sunscreens are considered 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.

On the other hand, while providing sun protection, the active ingredient in chemical sunscreen can cause your skin to generate excess oil.

Clogged pores can turn into blackheads or whiteheads, which is just what we don't want when we're trying to look after our skin!

Can physical sunscreen cause acne?

If you've been considering giving physical SPF a try, make sure to check the ingredients list, apply generously and reapply after contact with water. Thankfully, mineral sunscreen is safe for all skin types, as well as being a better choice for the environment.

It's the ideal sunscreen for acne-prone skin, offering sun protection while keeping your skin oil-free.

It's non-comedogenic, non-greasy and will help you skip those pesky post-beach acne breakouts. So, with all that in mind, which is the best sunscreen for acne-prone skin?

If you're hoping to avoid sunscreen related breakouts and the resulting acne scars, a non-greasy physical or mineral SPF is an excellent choice.

Overall, it is less likely to cause acne than chemical sunscreen thanks to the way it interacts with your skin, while still providing protection equal to that of a chemical sunscreen.

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 per cent over four and a half years.

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.

Adding sunscreen into 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 SPF and you're good to go.

Ultimately, the best sunscreen is the one you love and use everyday 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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