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Sunscreen (SPF) and Acne

Using Sunscreen (SPF) on Acne-prone Skin

Last updated: September 15, 2018

Article Summary

A healthy amount of sun exposure is good for the skin, and allows your body to produce vitamin D, but over-exposure causes irritation and can result in breakouts. An effective, non-pore-clogging sunscreen is an important part of a proper skin care routine. 

There are many sunscreens on the market and they must be judged product-by-product due to the variety of different ingredients used—some are safe for acne-prone skin, and some less so. Experts agree to choose an SPF factor of at least 15.

When applying sunscreen, it is important to use the right amount: 1/4-1/3 teaspoon for the face and 1 full ounce for the average person's entire body and should be reapplied every 2 hours. 

While wearing sunscreen limits the body’s ability to produce vitamin D and can produce free-radicals when the sun’s rays interact with sunscreen ingredients, most experts agree that the benefits of wearing sunscreen outweigh the risks.

Ten to twenty minutes per day of sun exposure for people with lighter skin and 20-30 minutes per day for people with darker skin may actually prove beneficial for acne symptoms. However, over-exposure to the sun will damage the skin. This irritation can result in breakouts in the weeks following over-exposure as the skin reacts to that damage. If you notice a breakout seemingly coming out of nowhere, especially in the summer months, ask yourself if you got sunburnt about two weeks ago. That may be the cause. To put it succinctly, don’t be afraid of the sun but try not to get burnt.

A good sunscreen can help prevent sunburn, but finding a safe and protective sunscreen can be challenging. Here’s some information to help you choose wisely.

Physical SPF vs. Chemical SPF

There are two types of sunscreens, physical and chemical.

Physical sunscreens: Physical sunscreens absorb but also reflect or block the sun’s rays. There are two physical sunscreens: zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. Zinc oxide is the gentler of the two and offers superior sun protection. Physical sunscreens tend not to clog pores and stay effective all day long, no matter how long you are in the sun. However, products with physical sunscreens are drying to the skin, and due to the physical nature of zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, most brands go on white and leave the skin looking pale.

Chemical sunscreens: Chemical sunscreens absorb the sun’s rays. There are numerous chemical sunscreen ingredients on the market. They tend to have a less reliable record with acne-prone skin and must be judged product-by-product to determine whether they are safe to use. Some chemical sunscreen products are perfectly safe for acne-prone skin, while others tend to break people out. Chemical sunscreens begin degrading once they are exposed to sunlight and are effective for 2 hours of sun exposure. However, they go on clear, and tend to be moisturizing.

Active Ingredients in Physical and Chemical Sunscreens

Protection of Sunscreen Ingredients


The term broad-spectrum applies to sunscreens which block both UVA and UVB rays. UVB rays are the rays responsible for tanning or burning the skin. Both UVA and UVB rays are responsible for skin damage, premature aging, and cancer. Both zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are broad-spectrum, with zinc oxide being the superior of the two. There are few fully effective UVA chemical sunscreens, with the notable exceptions of Avobenzone and Ecamsule, which provide full UVA support.

SPF (Sun Protection Factor) Number

The SPF number on a sunscreen refers to only UVB blocking. The higher the number, the longer you can stay in the sun without burning. The SPF number is a multiplier. If you normally burn in 30 minutes, an SPF of 2 will allow you to stay in the sun for 60 minutes without burning. An SPF of 3 will allow you to stay in the sun for 90 minutes, an SPF of 4 for 2 hours, and so on. An SPF of 15 would take this time up to 7 ½ hours.

Another way to look at the SPF number is by the amount of UVB rays that are blocked. An SPF of 2 blocks about 50% of these rays. An SPF of 15 blocks 93%, and an SPF of 30 blocks 97%. Most authorities recommend an SPF of 15 or greater. Nothing provides 100% support, and the higher the number, the more likely the product will be drying (physical) or greasy (chemical).

SPF (Sun Protection Factor) and Level of Protection

How to Apply 

How much. To get the full protection advertised on the label you must apply an adequate amount of sunscreen. This equates to a full 1 ounce (30mL)—a shot glass worth—for the average 150 pound person’s entire body, or ¼ to ⅓ teaspoon (about 2mL) for your face. Most people apply much less than is recommended and on average are only getting ¼ the protection the product claims. Once you have the right amount dispensed, apply it very gently as you would moisturizer to avoid irritation.

How Much Sunscreen to Use
When. If applying a physical sunscreen such as zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, you can apply it immediately before sun exposure. Physical sunscreens begin protecting the skin immediately after application. Chemical sunscreens are made to be applied 15 minutes before sun exposure since they need to "kick in" and require 15 minutes before they provide maximum protection.

How often. Physical sunscreens need to be reapplied only if you get wet, sweat a lot, or towel dry. Otherwise, they are good all day. Chemical sunscreens begin degrading when exposed to sunlight and last only 2 hours in the sun. If you apply a chemical sunscreen in the morning and get less than 2 hours of sun throughout the day, you’re all set. However, if you’re going to be in the sun all day, you will need to reapply every 2 hours, or after you get wet, sweat a lot, or towel dry.

When to Apply Sunscreen

Water Resistance

Sunscreens which claim "water-resistant," "very water-resistant," or "waterproof" include ingredients which create a water repellant layer on top of the skin. While convenient, water-resistant products can be irritating to acne-prone skin. Also, because water-resistant sunscreens are specifically formulated to be difficult to wash off, this creates unnecessary irritation when attempting to remove the sunscreen, which can further aggravate acne.

Woman Selecting Water Resistant Sunscreen


Applying an SPF as low as 8 will reduce your body’s ability to make Vitamin D by 95%. Vitamin D is an essential nutrient and a startling amount of people are deficient. The sun is not evil. 20 minutes of unprotected exposure per day for people with light skin, and 30 minutes per day for people with darker skin will provide healthy levels of vitamin D. If you are always wearing SPF, ask your doctor to check your vitamin D level and consider taking a vitamin D supplement. Look specifically for vitamin D3.

Sunscreen also releases free radicals into the skin. However, damage from sun’s rays does the same thing, and the FDA and AAD (American Academy of Dermatology) both agree that the benefits of sunscreen outweigh the risks.

Using Sunscreen with The Acne.org RegimenTM

The Acne.org Regimen, Acne.org's 3-step routine that completely clears the skin, requires the use of benzoyl peroxide, which is a drying and peeling agent. In order to stay acne-free, it is important to get the skin back into moisture balance after applying benzoyl peroxide. Physical sunscreens, while not pore-clogging in themselves, tend to be intensely drying. Most people find that applying zinc oxide or titanium dioxide based sunscreens simply leaves the skin too dry and flaky after benzoyl peroxide.

Recommended sunscreen options:

  1. In your palm, mix ¼ to ⅓ teaspoon Neutrogena Clear Face SPF 30 (chemical broad-spectrum sunscreen) with your usual moisturizer (i.e. Acne.org Moisturizer), and apply gently. For extra moisture, also mix in 5-6 drops of jojoba oil.
  2. In your palm, mix 5-6 drops of jojoba oil into Olay Complete All Day Moisturizer with Sunscreen Broad-Spectrum SPF 15 – Sensitive (combination chemical and physical broad-spectrum sunscreen), and apply gently.

The Experts at Acne.org

Our team of medical doctors, biology & chemistry PhDs, and acne experts work hand-in-hand with Dan (Acne.org founder) to provide the most complete information on all things acne. If you find any errors in this article, kindly use this Feedback Form and let us know.

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