Sunscreens Cause Acne! (and Other Summer Acne Facts!)

With blonde hair and big blue eyes, she looked like a young Betty Draper from Mad Men. My patient, Julie, had been faithfully treating her acne for months. Just when she was starting to clear (in time for her senior photos), wham! Red dots cropped up over her forehead and cheeks. What went wrong? Summertime.

July can be the cruelest month for acne. Acne on the chest and back (bacne) and big, red pimples on your face can make going to the beach an embarrassing experience. Here are a few acne facts for summer:

1. Although there is some suggestion that sun can help acne, its effect varies and sun often makes acne worse. (Bacne + sunburn = bacne burn. Not good).

2. Retinoinds such as topical Retin-A, tretinoin, Differin, Tazorac, Ziana, Atralin, and Accutane all remove the outer layer of skin, leaving you more susceptible to a bad sunburn. Benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid also peel the outer layer of skin, making you more sensitive.

3. Oral antibiotics such as doxycycline, minocycline, tetracycline, and sulfa antibiotics predispose you to a  painful pink burn on your nose, hands, and arms called a phototoxic rash; I see patients with this all summer long. The pink splotches can take weeks to fade and sting every time you’re in the sun.

4. Sunscreens can cause acne. It’s a cruel fact. Often the best sunscreens such as zinc and titanium, or water resistant sunscreens are the most likely to worsen acne. In order to be effective, sunscreens have to coat your skin which also clogs your pores.

Here are 5 tips to help keep you acne-clear this summer:

1. Remember that sun exposure is not a good way to clear up acne; most people get far more sun that what is helpful and just the right amount of sun to make it worse.

2. If you have fair or sensitive skin and are taking oral antibiotics for acne, then discuss with your physician if you are taking the best antibiotic during summer. Some patients take a break from antibiotics during summer months or switch to antibiotics that are less sun sensitizing.

3. Find ways to protect against the sun other than sunscreen: avoid the sun between 10 AM and 2 PM, wear a big hat (demonstrated here) and cover up.

4. When you need sunscreen, consider products designed for your face which are less oily or less likely to worsen acne such as: Neutrogena Ultra-sheer Dry Touch, Eucerin Facial Moisturizer with SPF 30, La Roche-Posay Antihelios Tinted Cream, or Proactiv’s Daily Protection Plus Sunscreen.

5. Avoid overusing scrubs, toners and slamming face-first into the beach; the added exfoliation will only make risk of sunburn worse.

Just hang-on, winter will be here again before you know it. Does your acne get worse in summer? What sunscreen do you use.

Photo: Foreversouls (flickr). Patient identity changed.

29 thoughts on “Sunscreens Cause Acne! (and Other Summer Acne Facts!)

  1. I wasn’t aware that antibiotics could contribute to phototoxic rash. Very interesting.

    My acne does get worse in the summer, but usually cuz I am negligent with my skin care. Since I’m out of school during that time, I stay at home for the whole day a lot more and don’t shower, so my skin doesn’t get washed (I only wash my face in the shower). Compound that with my skin getting naturally more oily in the summer and you get acne. My skin has been shimmering due to oil this summer, which it’s never done before. I use Blue Lizard Sensitive Skin SPF 30+ and that doesn’t make me break out when I use it.

  2. I commented here before.

    I have always had very bad acne and have only recently been successful in treating it using topical clindamycin. It is for all intents and purposes gone.

    It seems as though treating it completely for a long time has reduced the propensity for the specific areas I have problems in to spontaneously breakout — I wonder if its like getting a foot in the door as far as any healing process that might be going on in my skin.

    Secondly, I use Coppertone Sport Sunscreen SPF 30, because I’m weary of the nano-mineral sunscreens and it doesn’t contain benzophenone.

    I work as a lifeguard and have to apply sunscreen everyday, astonishingly this sunscreen has caused little to no acne. Any acne I get may as well be from touching my face, but I am truly amazed how little I’m dealing with given the fact i have to glob it on myself everywhere all day.

  3. I use Environ’s RAD sunscreen. My kids and I love it as it rubs in without leaving a white sheen on our skin and feels very hydrating. It has lots of antioxidants too. It is the only sunscreen my children will happily apply.

  4. I’m really prone to acne, but I’ve never had breakouts from zinc oxide before. Sometimes titanium dioxide can clog my pores, though. Usually it’s other ingredients in sunscreens that cause acne for me (Isopropyl Palmitate, for example), but not the actual active ingredients.

  5. my acne always gets worse in the summer, but mostly because I spend a lot of time in a full-face helmet (dh mtb and motorbikes) which always irriatates my overly-sensitive acne prone skin. Sunscreen does make it worse, but then so does sunburn so I err on the sunscreen side. In general, hot and humide = slick and sweaty skin, so I try to blot frequently and use fewer products when I can. as for applying sunscreen i usually just aim for cheeks and nose which is where i get it the most and try to keep my face in the shade as much as possible.

  6. I don’t spend much time in the sun anyway because I’ve never tanned, just burned. However I want to take up golf because I need the excercise and even though I miss the ball most the time I have a lot of fun just on the driving range alone. So I figure once I’m out there it ought to be more fun. I used the Neutrogena dry-touch with hydroplex SPF 80 and it made my face super greasy. (And yes, it does say dry-touch on it!) So I bought the Aveno oil-free sunscreen spray (spf 70) – again, made my face super oil. And it says it’s oil free!

    I have this stuff from Avon that makes a face look less shiny. But the spf is only 20. I wish they’d make it in 80+.

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  12. As a teen working summer day camps I noticed an improvement in my breakouts in those months. I did try moderately to wear the (embarrassingly) large hat, but my vanity often prevented it. I’m one of the fairest skinned people you’ll ever meet, with very sensitive skin, so sun exposure is not the best thing, but I did find that a little more summer sun than “what’s good for you” helped breakouts. I never had breakouts of a severity more than “moderate”, though.

    These days, at age 27, I favor staying out of the sun entirely and when I go out shopping on a sunny afternoon I like to use Shiseido’s Elixir sun product (one of the few that doesn’t irritate my sensitive skin). When it’s pool time I usually use Neutrogena sun products, one for face and one for body.

  13. Check out these guys at http://www.sunputty.com They have figured out what the big sunscreen companies have not. Every drop is effective ingredient. It is not watered down and does not contain synthetic chemicals. I love it! My skin is very smooth and blemish-free also.

  14. I am glad you wrote this because I know that sunscreen causes acne because it does to me I’m very sensitive to any creams or lotions for that matter, I get comedonal acne right away with any kind of sunscreen if I use it regularly so I just don’t use it. And then it comes when I have to advice regarding sunscreen to my patients who do have acne. I want to advice sunscreen to avoid sun damage and then it might cause them more acne, it feels like its working against my treatments, and to say avoid putting sunscreen because of your acne which I feel I cant really say that because what about sun damage effects. It becomes complicated especially in a very sunny area like Jeddah. So I tell them avoid direct exposure to the sun and if you are going to be exposed directly then use a specific kind of sunscreen labeled for acne skin and its a liqued base never the cream form.

  15. Sunputty sounds interesting, but I question a company that claims that zinc oxide is chemical free. What the heck do they think zinc oxide IS? I wonder how they created a transparent version of ZO…or are they using a lot less than a commercial version with it?

    The other ingredients look OK, a lot of plants that are claimed to be moisturinzing or good for your skin. Don’t have my natural products information here with me to validate that. I’ll look when I get home. However, even their “natural” ingredients can irritate.

    I am also concerned about how concentrated it claims to be. Normal FDA requirements for SPF are rigorous, but require the use of a lot of sunscreen (from Slate, August 7, 2007, where I found this information: “The FDA requires that manufacturers test their products at 2 milligrams per square centimeter of skin. That’s roughly equivalent to 2 ounces of sunscreen to cover your whole body, or one-quarter of a standard 8-ounce container every time you sit by the pool”. )How can a dime-sized amount of sunscreen do the same?

    I need more information.

  16. I wear mineral makeup with zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, so I never burn in the sun.

  17. dimples and bumps in the skin, usually around the thighs and buttocks, are caused when the natural structure of the skin is stretched by Fat cells growing too large.Many factors, including stress and inflammation of the skin, can contribute to the development of cellulite. I came across Argan oil from SweetMarrakesh. Try it and it worked for me. With google search on SweetMarrakesh Argan Oil, lots of info available.

  18. it seems as though my acne has disappeared this summer, maybe its because i do not have the stress of school?

  19. I haven’t really noticed my acne getting worse in the summer. Is it okay to wear a big hat without the sunscreen?

  20. thanks for posting. The fact of summer time is quite alarming but I am glad because I am so aware of it right now. Summer time is coming and I need to find a suitable sunscreen for my skin type. I don’t want to have acne on my face.

  21. Huh. SUmmer is the only time my acne goes away. If I even look at sun screen I break out.

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