Finally: Sunscreens that Won't Break You Out

Lightweight formulas that protect against sun and acne.

woman applying cream to her face and smiling
(Image credit: Getty Images)

I have a confession to make: Before I developed my meticulous skincare routine (which comes complete with a toner, essence, serum, eye cream, and moisturizer), I tended to skip sunscreen. Because my combination skin is prone to breakouts, particularly during the warmer months, I felt like sunscreens were too thick and greasy for my skin. They often felt like they were sitting in thick, pore-clogging layers atop my skin, and they were a nightmare to layer with makeup. I had no idea that SPFs for acne-prone skin (including several innovative Korean sunscreens and spray sunscreens) even existed.

"There are definitely challenges those with acne-prone skin might when trying to find the right SPF," admits board-certified dermatologist Dr. Sheila Farhang. "Several sunscreen formulations can be thick, especially if they are not specifically formulated for the face, and they can clog the pores, worsening acne. Additionally, some sunscreens can be formulated with comedogenic (AKA acne-causing) oils which can contribute and worsen acne as well."

And my complaints about sunscreen making it impossible to apply foundation? Turns out, I'm not crazy. Dr. Farhang says, "Some sunscreens may cause the skin to look very oily and/or not allow makeup to sit on the skin well. Plus, some sunscreens have chemical sun protecting ingredients that can potentially irritate the skin, causing more inflammation and acne."

But, as I've learned from our Everything SPF guide, not all sunscreens are built alike. There are plenty of sunscreens that work beautifully on acne-prone skin. And since regular use of sunscreen dramatically lowers your risk of developing skin cancer, you should consider making them part of your skincare routine (I sure have).

Below, everything you need to know about finding a sunscreen that keeps your skin both protected and clear.

Why It's Important

As aforementioned, for those with acne-prone skin, the inclination to skip the sunscreen step is particularly tempting. Those who already produce a lot of excess oil might try to mitigate that oiliness by minimizing the amount of product they put on their skin, but Dr. Farhang says that this couldn't be further from the truth.

"Sunscreen is especially important in those with acne because sun protecting minimizes the risk of acne scarring," she says. "Any trauma to the skin—especially for those darker skin—increases excess melanin production when exposed to the sun. This is what a dark acne lesion is (AKA post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation). Wearing sunscreen decreases that excess melanin production caused by the sun after acne or any trauma to the skin."

She adds that if you're using an acne treatment, including an acid (like lactic or salicylic acid) or a retinoid (including retinols like Tretinoin), your skin becomes more prone to sunburn and long-term damage from UV rays, making it all the more imperative that you use a sunscreen whenever you go outside.

What to Look for

We've established that there's a world of sunscreens suitable for those with acne-prone skin, but what are those qualities that make certain sunscreens so good for this skin type?

"Look for oil-free SPF formulations, and other mattifying ingredients that help decrease oil production and also help calm or soothe the skin," says Dr. Farhang. Niacinamide, for instance, helps minimize the appearance of pores, and certain Korean sunscreens boast matte formulas. "Tinted sunscreen may also be nice for those who have active acne or acne scarring to help with aesthetic coverage. Tinted sunscreen also helps further decrease the risk of acne scarring, as it blocks blue light exposure from our screens."

She adds that thinner, non-comedogenic, mineral formulas are ideal for those struggling with acne.

"If there is a sensitivity to chemical sunscreens, a physical sunscreen (AKA mineral) should be used formulated with zinc and titanium," she explains. "It is also important to use a sunscreen on the face specifically formulated for the face—no body sunscreens for the face!" This even includes thinner body sunscreens such as body sprays, she notes.

Best SPFs for Acne-Prone Skin

Meet the Expert

Dr. Sheila Farhang

Dr. Sheila Farhang is a board-certified dermatologist and double-fellowship trained cosmetic surgeon as well as a reconstructive Mohs micrographic (skin cancer) surgeon. “Dr. Sheila” as many know her as, stands out in the dermatology space as she has expertise in both integrative skincare and cutting-edge procedures. She is also highly regarded in the female empowerment space being a founder, CEO, and multi-business owner. Dr. Sheila attended the University of Texas for her undergraduate and medical degrees. Dr. Sheila then completed her dermatology residency at the University of South Florida Department of Dermatology and Cutaneous Surgery. During this time, she augmented her surgical education with additional training with plastic surgeons. Upon completion, she was selected for a position at arguably one of the most competitive programs in the country for dual fellowship at the Skin Institute of South Florida and Hollywood Dermatology in the Miami, FL area. During this time, she also completed a year-long entrepreneur and leadership program through the Advancing Innovation in Dermatology led by Harvard faculty and international industry leaders.

Gabrielle Ulubay
Beauty Writer

Gabrielle Ulubay is a Beauty Writer at Marie Claire. She has also written about sexual wellness, fashion, culture, and politics both at Marie Claire and for publications like The New York Times, Bustle, and HuffPost Personal. She has worked extensively in the e-commerce and sales spaces since 2020, including two years at Drizly, where she developed an expertise in finding the best, highest quality goods and experiences money can buy. As a film school graduate, she loves all things media and can be found making art when she's not busy writing.