Are Sun and Acne Related? The Truth About Acne, Sun, and Sunscreen

Young Woman Looks at Skin Outside in Summer

Sunlight can lift our spirits and help with maintaining a natural level of vitamin D, a critical nutrient for our health. But when it comes to sun and skin, there are a lot of myths out there—including that sun is good for “drying up” acne. In truth, the sun can both wreak havoc on your acne and leave you with darker acne scars, so sun protection is just as important for acne treatment as it is for preventing sunburns and premature aging.

In today’s blog, Berks Plastic Surgery’s dermatology physician assistant, Stacey Spehalski, PA-C, MPH, clears up the ways in which the sun and acne are (and are not!) related.

Does sunlight kill acne?

No, exposing your skin to the sun will not treat acne or kill the bacteria that causes it. While you may experience a short term “drying up” of your acne after being in the sun—and it may seem as though getting a tan could help camouflage breakouts—the sun will actually worsen acne in the end. Plus, any healing acne lesions or scabs exposed to sun can become permanently darker, leaving you with worse scars.

In sum, no amount of unprotected time spent in the sun is good to begin with, whether or not you have acne, as it increases your chances of UV damage, scarring, skin cancer, and wrinkling.

Why am I breaking out after being in the sun?

Sun exposure makes acne worse by aggravating the balance of the skin. Acne pimples begin with clogged pores, and the effects of UV radiation from the sun lead to more clogged pores, and therefore more breakouts, in a few key ways:

1. The sun may make acne worse by drying out the skin.

While it may seem logical to “dry out” your acne-prone skin, all skin needs moisture to maintain a healthy, balanced state (even acne prone skin needs moisturizer). When your skin dries out, the body tries to compensate by increasing the production of oil (sebum), which directly leads to worsening acne.

2. Sun exposure stops healthy cell turnover.

A secondary effect of the sun drying out your skin is that the surface hardens. This makes it harder for the top layer of dead skin cells to naturally slough off, which is a recipe for worsening acne, since healthy cell turnover (natural exfoliation) is critical to keeping pores from becoming clogged.

3. The sun makes you sweat.

When you sweat, it creates a moist environment where acne bacteria thrive, contributing to breakouts.

4. Certain medications may make you sensitive to sunlight.

For those who are using certain medications to treat their acne, such as isotretinoin (Accutane®), your skin may be especially prone to sunburn and sun damage. Be sure to carefully follow your dermatologist’s and pharmacist’s specific advice regarding sun protection and your prescription acne medication and topical creams.

Should I avoid sunscreen since I have acne?

No, you should not avoid sunscreen if you have acne; you just need the right sunscreen. Using daily sun protection in the form of protective clothing, shade, and acne-safe sunscreen will actually help to prevent acne breakouts. Applying a lotion of any sort may seem counterintuitive, and it is true that most acne sufferers have had bad experiences with creams (including the wrong sunscreens) that worsen acne or aggravate the skin. But there are many easy-to-wear formulas that are gentle and will not promote breakouts! Rather than guessing among OTC products at the drugstore, I suggest seeing a medical skincare professional like myself: we have superior physician-grade SPF products that feel wonderful on the skin.

What sunscreen should I use if I have acne?

Even sunscreens that are labelled as “non-comedogenic” may clog your pores, so talk with your dermatologist before road testing a new sunscreen. They can help you identify a formula that has worked for patients with the same kind of acne you have. In general, this is what you should look for in a sunscreen:

  • Look for an SPF of at least 50. While it is recommended that everyone use an SPF of at least 30, those with acne are best served with stronger protection.
  • Choose a lotion (or spray) sunscreen formula with a lightweight texture that is easy to wear and absorbs into your skin. (Not all sunscreens are thick, sticky, and difficult to rub in, and it’s absolutely critical to choose a sunscreen you will be happy and comfortable wearing daily.)
  • Look for “oil-free” and “non-comedogenic” on the label.
  • Choose a mineral-based sunscreen, formulated with zinc oxide and titanium dioxide as the primary ingredients, as these are less likely to cause a reaction on sensitive and acne-prone skin.
  • Avoid stick sunscreens, which typically are oil-based and may be more pore-clogging.

Wear sunscreen year-round; even on cloudy days, your skin is exposed to UV radiation from the sun. For full protection, complement your sunscreen use by minimizing direct sun exposure outdoors, seeking shade, and wearing a hat.

Proper sun protection doesn’t just stop sunburn, but it stops sun-induced breakouts and prevents dark spots from developing.

How do you prevent sun pimples?

To prevent acne breakouts, work with your dermatologist or dermatological specialist to develop a skin care regimen—and follow it carefully. Cleansing, exfoliating, moisturizing, and protecting with a lightweight SPF are all key steps in promoting healthy cell turnover and a balanced skin barrier. We can help you choose among medical-grade skincare products that promote clear skin gently.

If you are prone to acne scarring, sun exposure can also darken scarring: this reaction is called post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation. To avoid it, wear a high SPF and a hat when you’re in the sun, especially while your skin is actively healing, so you won’t have discoloration left behind after your acne clears up.

For professional skincare and dermatology services, visit Berks Plastic Surgery in Reading, PA

Berks Plastic Surgery offers solutions for all your acne treatment and dermatology needs. Our dermatology physician assistant Stacey Spehalski, PA-C, MPH sees children and adults for a range of dermatological concerns at our office, including acne, and has the tools and experience to help you get acne under control safely. To schedule your dermatology appointment, contact us online or call (610) 320-0200.

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