Sunscreen for sensitive and acne-prone skin

By Rebeca Thomas, RN, BSN, CPHQ May 23, 2022 • 6 min

If you have sensitive or acne-prone skin, it can be hard to find products that are right for you. While you want to keep your skin from getting irritated, it’s also important to stay protected from the sun's harsh ultraviolet (UV) rays. Exposure to harmful UV rays can cause sunburns, which increase your risk of skin cancer, especially if you get them during childhood. Wearing sunscreen to protect yourself from the sun is a must for everyone, even if you have sensitive or acne-prone skin. Here you'll learn about what to look for in a sunscreen to meet your skin's needs.

Sensitive skin and sunscreen

Mineral or physical sunscreens can often be used on sensitive skin because they contain ingredients that include zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, which may be less irritating to sensitive skin. Mineral sunscreens act as a barrier and sit on top of your skin, protecting you by blocking and scattering UV rays before they reach your skin. In addition, there are certain sunscreens that state on the packaging that they're especially for sensitive skin. While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn't define "sensitive skin" for this purpose, this may mean that the sunscreen is hypoallergenic, contains zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide as mentioned above, and does not contain oil, fragrance, para-aminobenzoic acid (PABA) or other active ingredients found in chemical sunscreens.

Chemical sunscreens shield skin by absorbing the UV rays before they can harm your skin. However, these sunscreens may contain ingredients like oxybenzone and avobenzone listed in the labeling, which may be more irritating to sensitive skin. 

Acne-prone skin and sunscreen

Mineral sunscreens also tend to be less irritating for those who get breakouts. Water-based or light, liquid-based gels or sprays, light lotions or powder sunscreens may be better options for people with acne. It's important to read labels closely if you have acne. Choose a sunscreen that's considered noncomedogenic, which means it won't clog your pores. Avoid sunscreens that contain PABA and benzophenone, because these ingredients may aggravate acne-prone skin.

Note that some acne medications can actually increase your skin's sensitivity to sunlight, making your skin more likely to sunburn. Talk to your healthcare provider or pharmacist about the side effects of your medication, and ask them how to best protect your skin if you're at risk for increased sensitivity to sunlight.

Watch how your skin reacts to new products

It’s important to pay attention to your skin's reactions to different or unfamiliar products, especially if you have sensitive or acne-prone skin. To test whether a sunscreen is right for your skin type, the American Cancer Society recommends that you apply a small amount of the sunscreen product to the soft skin on the inside of your elbow every day for three days. If no irritation or itchiness is noted, the product is likely a good option for you. Avoid using products that aggravate your skin. 

Sunscreen tips for everyone

The American Academy of Dermatology recommends that everyone use a water-resistant sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or higher. Keep in mind that there is no such thing as waterproof sunscreens. Also, make sure the sunscreen says "broad spectrum" on the label or states that it protects against both ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet (UVB) rays. 

Apply sunscreen at least 15 minutes before heading outdoors. Make sure to apply a generous amount. Adults need about 1 ounce, which is about a palmful, to fully cover their body. Even on cloudy days, reapply the sunscreen approximately every two hours or after swimming, toweling off or sweating, following the label's directions. 

Make sure to check the expiration date on your sunscreen and avoid using products that have expired. The FDA requires that all sunscreens retain their original strength for at least three years, but you may need to shake the bottle to remix the ingredients if you haven’t used the bottle for a while. Also, sunscreens that have been exposed to heat for long periods, such as in a glove box, may become less effective.

If you have sensitive or acne-prone skin, it's important to read sunscreen labels carefully and avoid ingredients that bother your skin. In general, using a mineral sunscreen and avoiding harsh ingredients is best for delicate skin. 

Updated March 2022. 

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