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Sunscreens for your face | Facial SPF

Facial SPF or sunscreen for your face, in general, should be primarily in the morning routine to address UV exposure throughout the day. I often hear patients say that they do not go outside so they do not wear SPF-containing products. Read more...



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What should one consider when adding SPF, particularly sunscreen for the face, to their skincare routine?

Facial SPF or sunscreen for your face, in general, should be primarily in the morning routine to address UV exposure throughout the day. I often hear patients say that they do not go outside so they do not wear SPF-containing products. The reality is that UV light, even in small amounts throughout the day with driving or walking as well as exposure through windows, can have a cumulative impact on your skin. If you are planning to be indoors or working from home in front of a computer screen, it is also important to consider a product with added blue light protection to reduce its impact on the skin.

What is the story behind blue light?

When people think about discoloration and the skin they are often focused on UV light and its effects. However, blue light is garnering more attention these days given the widespread use of portable electronics and reliance on these for work and school. UV light only makes up about 2 to 5% of the spectrum of light emitted by the sun. Although its effects on DNA damage in our cells is well documented, more than half of the spectrum of light emitted by the sun is visible light. Blue light makes up one of the shorter wavelengths of visible light found around the 415 nm band. The source of blue light around us is not only the sun but also from screens on our mobile or portable electronic devices.

What can blue light do to our skin?

Blue light has been shown to trigger discoloration in the skin in those with skin types that have a tendency to tan. Studies have shown that the likelihood of triggering discoloration in the skin is higher in those with skin types III or higher. These skin types tend to tan easier than they burn. There is some evidence that blue light may trigger the development of free radicals in the skin. The concern is that these free radicals can damage the DNA of cells. If this occurs the potential for premature aging of the skin can occur.

What should one look for in a product to protect against blue light exposure?

Broad-spectrum sunblocks are not reliably capable of blocking blue light. They are not even reliably capable of blocking UVA light. Products containing niacinamide have been shown to help reduce the tendency toward discoloration from blue light. The ingredient to seek for blue light protection is iron oxide. Studies have shown a benefit to products that use iron oxide as an active ingredient to protect against blue light.



How does niacinamide factor into a skincare routine?

Niacinamide is also known as vitamin B3. Niacinamide is hydrophilic, meaning it loves water or moisture. It has been shown to have multiple benefits for the skin. It has anti-inflammatory and anti-itch properties as well as antimicrobial activity. It actually even has photoprotective qualities as well. One more bonus, it has been shown to reduce sebum or oil production in the skin as well. In recent years it has gained a lot of popularity as a skincare ingredient given its benefits. Included in the morning routine tends to be ideal.

If you are already using products for acne, is it a good idea to add this facial SPF to the mix?

Facial SPF is an important component of an acne skincare routine. Hyperpigmentation from acne can be effectively reduced and improved by integrating facial SPF into your routine. A facial SPF with niacinamide with also work to reduce inflammation in the skin in addition to oil or sebum production.

Is it better to keep these ingredients separate, i.e., only for acne products and not mixed with SPF?

It is not unreasonable to use multitasking products in your acne skincare routine, with good reason. Adding too many products will inevitably add more layers on your skin. Even though individual products may be listed as non-comedogenic or nonpore clogging, this term only applies to the individual product tested. It does not necessarily still apply when multiple products are used together.



What if there are other products in my skincare routine like vitamin C serums or vitamin A serums? Should I use facial SPF?

Topical vitamin C does several things: it’s a potent antioxidant to prevent damaging our cells from UV and the environment, it inhibits an enzyme called tyrosinase in the skin to prevent hyperpigmentation, it is an anti-inflammatory to help with redness in the skin, and it can boost collagen production. It has been shown to improve the texture and appearance of skin overall. One note- even though vitamin C can improve pigmentation in the skin, I find the best results are from pigment as a result of sun damage. Its mechanism of improving pigment is by blocking a specific enzyme that triggers hyperpigmentation. Although this can be a similar issue with acne scars, not all pigment is the same and I do not always find that acne scars respond consistently as well to vitamin C compared to other options.

Retinol itself is a form of vitamin A found in foods and products. It’s naturally occurring. By itself, Retinol actually is not directly active in the skin. When applied to the skin, it is converted into retinoic acid which is considered an active retinoid. Retinoids are known to improve fine lines and wrinkles by boosting collagen production in addition to retaining water in the skin. They can help actually reverse the signs of aging that come from sun damage. They can also work to minimize discoloration in the skin and give the skin more of a glow. The active form of retinoids plays a significant role in treating and preventing acne. It is difficult to say how much of an anti-acne benefit there is with over-the-counter retinol as much of the potency is dependent on the degree of conversion to retinoic acid in the skin.

If using a vitamin C containing product, apply this in the morning with your facial SPF on top. If using a retinol or retinoid, use this in the evening.

Should those using niacinamide avoid vitamin C?

There is an old study from almost 60 years ago that showed that when these Niacinamide and Vitamin C were used together under unique circumstances involving extremely high temperatures led to the development of nicotinic acid that is irritating to the skin. This will not happen in real-world circumstances. There are more recent studies that show that using these two ingredients together can improve dyspigmentation. An SPF-containing product will only further benefit the management of hyperpigmentation.

Would using too many ingredients become irritating to sensitive or normal skin?

Using too many ingredients can become irritating fairly quickly if care is not taken to review each product to avoid redundancy. All too often when I review products in patients’ routine products are integrated based on buzzwords such as “spot corrector” or “acne cleanser” without checking the ingredients. Many times there is a good amount of redundancy in products chosen that can result in a irritation to the skin.

Are there any common ingredients in SPF that acne-prone skin types should avoid using?

When we discuss sunscreen safety and sunscreen absorption concerns, we are primarily focused on chemical sunscreen ingredients. These are basically all of the sunscreens that are not zinc or titanium. The safety concerns are based on widespread application - exposed areas from head to toe sparing the areas covered by a swimsuit. The studies seem to indicate that by applying these sunscreens all over and reapplying as well, there can be a significant measurable amount of these sunscreen ingredients in our bloodstream. Some studies suggest 4 x the level deemed safe with unclear and unknown consequences with regard to endocrine disruption or other health issues. When it comes to considering facial sunscreens, especially for acne-prone skin, if we are focused on the face and a chemical sunscreen is the only option a patient will consider simply because they apply easier, then it is not unreasonable to say that if the chemical sunscreen is limited to the face and a mineral sunscreen is used on the body, then the absorption concerns are less of an issue. I have not come across any studies that raise any concerns about chemical sunscreens triggering or worsening acne.

The most important thing to consider when it comes to using sunscreen for acne-prone skin is the need to integrate a sunscreen product into your morning routine for several reasons. The first is that acne has a high tendency to discolor or hyper pigment the skin, especially with sun and blue light exposure. Using sunscreen daily can reduce or minimize post-inflammatory pigmentation. The second is that many acne products work by exfoliating which leaves the lower layers of skin a bit more exposed to the damaging effects of UV. Using sunscreen can reduce the impact of damage on the DNA of these cells.

What type of facial SPF should acne-prone skin types use?

The question of the best sunscreens for acne-prone skin is one that I face in my practice as well as with my 3 teenagers. The reality is that many sunscreens can feel thick and pasty or oily and greasy and leave those with acne struggling to figure out what role sunscreen could be playing in their flares. I have found that the best way to approach determining the right option for your skin is by understanding the active ingredients in sunscreen and which to focus on based on their role in acne. The simple reason why is that when I recommend a particular product, many people only remember the main brand and assume everything in the line may be ok. This is not the case as there is a wide range of sunscreen options under each brand umbrella and not all are always available at your local store. Under each ingredient, I will list the precise name to make it clearer which option is best!


There have been studies to see if zinc can play a role in the treatment of acne. There is evidence that suggests that it may have antibacterial properties, reduce inflammation and potentially reduce the amount of oil or sebum produced by the skin. All 3 of these factors play a role in acne. There are inconsistent findings when it comes to the practical use of zinc as an acne treatment, however, we do know it is regarded as safe and effective for preventing sunburns. For these reasons, I find that it is a good ingredient to seek in facial sunscreens for acne-prone skin by being less likely to trigger acne, potentially helping prevent acne or acne-related skin changes, and preventing sunburn. The challenge with zinc is that it is not always cosmetically elegant to apply. It tends to leave a whitish cast and can be difficult to rub into the skin. I have found a couple that are pure zinc, facial sunscreens that actually do apply nicely.


There must be a number of blogs and sites that raise concerns about titanium and/or micronized mineral sunscreens and acne. Micronized zinc and titanium mineral sunscreens are extremely common because they are applied easily and leave much less of a white cast on the skin. Several patients have commented to me about their concerns about these products being of such a small particle size they worry they could accumulate in their pores. There was a large published review in the medical literature that did not seem to show much evidence that these products penetrate beyond the stratum corneum which is the outermost level of the epidermis. More studies would need to be done to elaborate on the risks of acne but this does not appear to be of significant concern at this time.

The reason this is important is simply that most mineral sunscreens I have come across, including the one that I have in my skincare line are often a combination of titanium and zinc. This is very reasonable to use and should not pose a significant risk of flaring acne.

What do studies say, how often and when to apply, should you still use in the winter months, other tips for application and shopping, etc.?

During winter months, there is a common misconception that harmful UV rays are no longer an issue. Given the right conditions taking into consideration the time of day, altitude, and potential for magnified UV from reflective surfaces, the negative impact of UV damage can be significant. Fresh snow, for example, can reflect and magnify UV- it can even double your UV exposure! Ski instructors and resort employees actually have very high incidences of skin cancer. According to a study in Utah, two ski resorts had about a 10% incidence of skin cancer with 20% of their employees referred for biopsies.

The real issue is a misunderstanding of how to identify UV exposure. Most people associate heat with UV. There is an assumption that sunburn is based on the skin "heating up” in the sun leading to a burn based on a cooking analogy. Heat, however, is the result of infrared radiation from the sun that is felt as heat. UV is not associated with temperature, you cannot feel it. UV exposure is what is responsible for placing our skin at risk for skin cancer. This key distinction helps explain why some of the worst sunburns I see are in the months of March and April. The weather is cooler, the sun is out, and layers of clothing are shed during these months. With the lack of excess heat as a reminder, the chances of spending extra time outdoors can lead to some surprisingly intense sunburns. In the winter months, I see our skiers come back from resorts with severe sunburns over their exposed areas- primarily the exposed areas of the cheeks. The benefit of clothing is that it can protect the larger surface areas, however, the face remains at high risk.

Ideally, I ask patients to focus on perhaps the best way to assess UV in real-time. Open the weather app on your phone, scroll to the bottom right side of the screen, and look at the UV index at that moment. A UV index of 0-2 is the low-risk category. This index changes based on time of day and location so recheck it throughout the time you spend time outdoors.

What is the difference between chemical and mineral sunscreens? Which do you think is best for facial use?

When we discuss sunscreen safety and the potential for absorption of chemical sunscreens into the bloodstream, the focus of this data and these studies is the extent of the body surface area these products are applied. The assumption is that people will be applying sunscreen head to toe with the exception of the bathing suit area simulating the time spent in the sun at a pool or on the beach. This leads us to often recommend the use of physical sunscreens such as zinc or titanium to minimize or reduce the risk of absorption. However, during colder months there is a good chance you are wearing added clothing and layers that will serve the indirect role of UV protection. Given this fact, the use of any kind of sunscreen is fine because applying a chemical sunscreen to the face and potentially hands alone is such a limited body surface area the risk of product absorption is far less. That being said, if you are spending a significant time outdoors and/or exposed to extreme cold or wind, the use of a zinc-based sunscreen stick will allow for even coverage and potentially help form a barrier on the skin to protect the skin from breakdown

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