Pick Your Poison! The Ultimate Guide to Sunscreen and Acne – Part 1


It’s sunscreen week!

This is another guest post from my amazing (and funny, and smart, and talented) skin care correspondent, Svea. In fact, her crazy knowledge of sunscreen and how it relates to acne has resulted in a post that was so epic, it needed to be broken down into three parts!

This is part 1.

Also, check out Svea’s own blog here. Go. Do it.

Here Comes the Sun!

Talking about sunscreen is an extremely delicate topic.

It took me loads of time to write this article, because I felt that it had to be INFORMATIVE, HELPFUL and UNDERSTANDABLE at the same time – with all scientific backgrounds listed and explained. All in all: as COMPLETE as possible!

It’s always easy to say that all sunscreen is crap and that long sleeves, crazy hats, enormous sunglasses and living in a crawl space cellar during the summer months is the best way to get “rid” of the sun. On the other hand, who doesn’t love to spend a few hours at the beach, to lay down in a park doing nothing at all, to go swimming, or on a biking tour?

Sombreros are not always practical and a 100% harmless sunscreen simply does not exist (sad as it is), so it’s all about finding the best possible compromise. And that’s extremely tricky!

Somehow I was intrigued by this type of entrapment and maybe that’s why I couldn’t stop myself from researching for a very long time. This topic was simply so sarcastically thrilling!

Well, I guess the articles still aren’t totally complete and will probably be quite hard to read because it‘s long and very specific and doesn’t offer a simple all-purpose solution that works for everyone, everywhere, every time.

Nevertheless, I hope that it‘ll give you a few helpful hints!

The Sunburn of the Pharaoh

I warn you: Never attempt to try this! It‘s only an old anecdote. And a nice start for our long and exhausting sunscreen tour!

The divine Pharaoh was tired of it all: Intolerable itchiness, crusts, nodules and pustules everywhere! He tried the only method of healing, his medical scholars could recommend to him and spent hours and hours sunbathing in the merciless Egyptian midday sun!

The inevitable sunburn was severe and caused his skin to peel off in large, red shreds. But after the healing process was completed, his nightly itching terror stopped – at least for a while. Neither he nor his doctors knew why the treatment helped, and what had left him scratching all night.

Small scabies mites were living in his outermost skin layers, drilling passages while depositing eggs and excrements. The itching was the result of an allergic reaction of his body to the presence of the mites. The dead pieces of skin, flaking away after every sunbathing session, contained a large part of the mites and the divine Pharaoh came to a rest.

For a while. 

In the meantime, the remaining mites kept reproducing and the game began all over again! The divine Pharaoh was tired of it all and went out into the merciless midday sun…

That‘s a story a dermatologist told me once, but I can‘t tell if it‘s really a true story.

Anyway, believe it or not, just as you please! And let‘s come straight to the subject!

Hormones in Sunscreens

Leaving behind the Pharaoh and his mites, spending hours and hours in the sun is definitely out!

I‘m sure, you’ve already heard the “news“ about chemical UV filters in most conventional sunscreen products acting like hormones. Whoever wants to protect him or herself against sunburn has to use large amounts of sunscreen – and in the end of your holiday, you’ve spread several deciliters of it onto your skin!

A good shower or a bath in the sea won‘t wash away all cream residues. Tiny amounts of your sunscreen may penetrate through your mouth or your skin into your organism.

During a study at the University of Zurich in 2000 / 2001, ultraviolet (UV) filters have been detected in the breast milk of women, who were using conventional sunscreens on a regular basis. The alarming result: In the laboratory, common UV filters protecting against the most harmful UV-B rays stimulated the growth of human breast cancer cells. Whoever speaks German, can read more about it here. For everyone else: click here.

In addition, recent studies have raised concerns over a gradual build-up of parabens in the body. Parabens are added as preservative agents to many commercial sunscreens (and a lot of other beauty products) and have been linked to hormone disruption – and again cancer.

In addition, these chemicals have been shown to increase UV light absorption. This means, parabens can increase sun damage to the skin! That‘s why it’s important to avoid them especially in sunscreen products and day moisturizers.

However, it‘s logical that we should stay away from as many synthetic irritants as possible!

Further readings about parabens: click here and here.

Free Radicals?

Its basically impossible to find a sunscreen that does not generate free radicals itself. Potentially harmful chemicals such as dioxybenzone and oxybenzone have been proven to be some very powerful free radical generators.

This means that the active ingredients in most sunscreens on the market generate free radicals, in order to avoid the formation of free radicals during sun exposure. Ha! Funny, isn‘t it?

In the end, after lots of investigative reading (always keep in mind that I‘m neither a dermatologist nor an analytical chemist or a sunscreen expert), I found out that a nanotechnology-free zinc-oxide-based sunscreen still appears to be the safest bet when it comes to using sunscreens.

While even larger particles of zinc oxide inevitably produce free radicals, at least their relatively large size significantly reduces the probability of these particles being absorbed and subsequently producing free radicals near any living tissue.

What about titanium dioxide?

There are two types of it, rutile and anatase. These polymorphs of titanium dioxide differ in certain properties. As it comes out, rutile is less photo-reactive compared to anatase: It has a very high refractive index and high dispersion properties. This means, that rutile titanium dioxide tends to reflect UV rays rather than absorbing them.

Sure, you still might want to be concerned about which type of it is present in your sunscreen. Generally, rutile is used, but if you like, you can still try to contact the manufacturing companies. However, keep in mind that you still have to BELIEVE in whatever they tell you!


Zinc oxide offers a good uniform UVA and UVB coverage between 290-400 nm and is the only non-synthetic sunscreen agent providing a broad spectrum protection against UVA and UVB rays.

In comparison, titanium dioxide protects well against UVB rays, blocks short UVA rays, but misses a large portion of the longer ones.

Generally, externally applied zinc oxide doesn’t cause any allergic reactions. There are only a handful of extremely rare cases of zinc oxide not being tolerated. The mineral sits on top of your skin and disperses the sunlight without allowing it to get to the skin‘s surface, and – as long no nano-technology is involved – it won‘t be absorbed into your skin.

In addition, the protection factor does not diminish in the course of the day. This means, that you don‘t have to put on your sunscreen several times a day! And while synthetic filters lose their effectiveness after approximately one year, mineral sunscreens can be used for a much longer period (depending on the product up to three years). So you‘ll probably still be able to use the mineral sunscreen you bought last year – at least as long as the ingredients in it didn’t turn rancid!

Also, zinc oxide is a mild antimicrobial and wound healing substance and is considered to be non-comedogenic. This makes it a pretty good ingredient for acne prone and sensitive skin (think of zinc oxide ointments for babies)! This is also a reason why zinc-oxide based mineral makeup works so well for many people with a problem skin – and it provides a little sun protection at the same time!

Zinc Oxide

Micronized and Nano

There are many reports which claim that nano particles of titanium dioxide or zinc oxide have the ability to pass the skin‘s outer layers. That‘s why those so-called nanosunscreens have a less whitening effect on your skin compared to other products using bigger mineral particles.

In addition, there are concerns that these nano-sized minerals are much more photo-reactive than coarser particles and may generate free radicals which can cause cell damage. Especially spray-on sunscreens and powders containing nanoparticles increase the risk of inhalation as the particles travel in the air.

Some manufacturers have addressed this issue by coating the particles with silicon, aluminum oxide or stabilized lecithin, forming aggregates sized 200 – 500 nm, in order to prevent free radical formation.

However, some people tend to break out if their sunscreen contains silicon coated particles. Unfortunately, the manufacturers only list the ingredients themselves, but never the coating substances. You have to be VERY insistent if you want to know a little more about it (and you‘ll never know if you‘ll get an honest reply).

Micronized minerals, which are at least 250 nanometers in diameter, are preferable over nano-particles which are around 100 nm or less. The difference between micronized and nano-sized is like the difference between a million = micro and a billion = nano. The larger micronized minerals are generally believed to be safer with a lower risk of inhalation and skin penetration.

You can find an extremely mind-opening article about the risks of nano-sunscreens here.

A scientific essay with background information about the potential phototoxic effects of nano-sunscreens: click here.

And if you want to know more about the production process of sunscreen minerals, zinc oxide, titanium dioxide and other minerals, you can find lots of information here.

The Goth Chick Look

The spreadability of most mineral sunscreens is completely different compared to chemical based products.

The mineral micro pigments in physical sunscreens reflect UV rays just like a mirror. However, these minerals, especially zinc oxide, are not water-soluble. On the other hand, chemical sunscreen agents can even be incorporated in plain water and convert the absorbed energy from UV radiation into heat – directly on your skin!

I guess many of you don‘t like the fact that most mineral sunscreens have a pasty consistency, are a “little“ more difficult to apply, have a whitening effect on your skin and often feel sticky or greasy. I think that there aren‘t many of you who want to look like a mixture of a geisha and a bacon rind by choice.

Fortunately, there seem to be a few less oily and less whitening products out there. Finally. Have a look at my sunscreen tips towards the end of the article! However, if you still find that your sunscreen is too pasty, you can try to warm it a little bit in the palms of your hands and distribute it in many little portions all over your skin. You‘ll see that you‘ll be able to “work“ it in much more easily – preferably without rubbing or pulling your skin!

Whoever of you is still afraid of the whitening effect can blend some mineral foundation powder into the sunscreen before applying it to the face. A little darker tint than the one you are using normally should work perfectly. Mix only the smallest amounts (it‘s not easy to mix!) and store in the fridge!

Or do you think you are too lazy to do that?

Luckily, there are a few manufacturers (for example Marie Veronique Organics), who sell ready-made tinted mineral sunscreens in a few different shades.

Oils in Sunscreens

Due to the light-exposed application of sunscreens and daytime moisturizers during the summer months, these products require the utilization of oxidation-stable oils without or (in regular skin care products) with only a low content of polyunsaturated fatty acids.

The well known Mallorca acne (acne aestivalis), for example, is caused by toxic metabolites: solar radiation and heat oxidize and decompose unstable lipids in cosmetic products.

On the other hand, UV-light-induced skin aging is much more influenced by the oxidation of the skin’s own lipids. Yet, eating a balanced and healthy whole-foods diet can have a positive influence on the composition of your sebum.

You see, it makes sense to confront this problem holistically! It‘s in your hands!

But let‘s get back to the topic: oils in sunscreens!

Some oils are excellent stabilizers for others: jojoba oil, coconut or babassu oil, meadowfoam oil or marula oil, for instance. Argan oil, rice germ oil, baobab oil, avellana oil and sesame oil are relatively resistant to UV-radiation as well, but still contain a certain amount of linoleic acid – which can dissolve existing comedones and can therefore be helpful for acne prone skin types.

Also, plant butters with a low proportion of polyunsaturated fatty acids such as shea, mango and cupuacu butter, can be used in sunscreens without any problems, just as neutral oil (a lipid based on coconut and palm kernel oil. INCI name: caprylic / capric triglycerides) and squalane (derived from olive oil).

Oils prone to oxidative rancidity, however, should be avoided in sunscreen formulations: rosehip oil, evening primrose oil or pomegranate seed oil, hemp, elderberry or black currant seed oil. As a rule of thumb, all these oils are basically seed oils!

In day care moisturizers with a sun protection, a small amount of these oils may be present (up to 10%), if the basic lipid matrix consists of stable oils.

Organic cosmetic manufacturers are usually using such a stable base of UV-resistant oils for their sunscreen preparations: jojoba, coconut, avocado, almond, high oleic sunflower oil, sesame oil, vegetable butters and waxes.

However, sometimes you‘ll find refined oils in their products as well: Oxidative fatty acids and impurities such as phospholipids have been extracted to prevent any kind of phototoxic reaction.

Unsaturated seed oils or essential oils are usually listed down towards the end of the list of ingredients. This means that the sunscreen contains only a proportionally small amount of oils prone to oxidation. In addition, antioxidants such as vitamin E (tocopherol) protect the emulsion. If you find one of the following seed oils mentioned in the upper part of the ingredients list of a sunscreen, you‘d better leave it on the shelf:

  • hemp oil (cannabis sativa),
  • rosehip oil (rosa mosqueta, rosa canina, rosa rubiginosa),
  • evening primrose oil (oenothera biennis),
  • borage seed oil (borrago officinalis),
  • grape seed oil (vitis vinifera),
  • black currant seed oil (ribes nigrum),
  • elderberry seed oil (sambucus nigra),
  • inca peanut oil (plukenetia volubilis),
  • pomegranate seed oil (punica granatum),
  • essential oils.

… aaand that’s enough for Day 1. We’ll sit and let that digest and you can read Part 2 on Wednesday (don’t worry – it will include specific recommendations for safe, natural sunscreen brands for acne prone skin!)

Click Here to read Part 2!

You can totally be happy, healthy and acne free!

Just grab my free gift to you, ‘7 things You Can Start Doing Right Now to Clear Your Skin’ and get started right away!

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  1. Annemarie says

    Wow!! I was just about to start researching the whole sunscreen thing, looks like you just did it for me! :)
    As long as you don’t burn, is sunscreen even needed? I tend to get a lot of sun and was thinking I should find a good sunscreen to use a little bit, but if I tan and don’t burn do I even need it? Can’t wait to read more!

    • says

      Hi Annemarie!

      Thanks a lot for you flowers!

      Answering your question:

      5-15 minutes of sun exposure are actually really good for you. Avoid the peak hours (cover yourself, wear a hat and sunglasses or stay inside) and enjoy the sun between 10-11am and 3-4pm instead (depending on where you live). If you have a darker skin tone and don’t burn easily, the period of exposure can be extended a LITTLE bit – max. 20 minutes, even if you don’t burn!

      After your initial 5-15 (or 20) minutes in the sun, apply a mineral (non-nano zinc oxide) sunscreen – or stay in the shade – or cover yourself and wear a wide-brimmed hat! It’ll protect you from sunburn, skin cancer, hyper-pigmentation and premature aging. You see, it’s not only about burning or not!

    • Heather C. says

      Hi Josee! Where do you get zinc oxide from and how long have you been using this sunscreen? How well does this sunscreen hold up in water? I’m just curious becuase it’s scorching where I am and I’m pretty fair-skinned. I normally use whipped coconut oil as a moisturizer and am really interested in adding just a few extra ingredients to make a body-friendly sunscreen :) Thanks in advance!

      • says

        Hi Josee and Heather C.!

        I’m a bit hesitant about homemade sunscreen – although I love to make my own cremes and potions free of all kinds of irritants: It’s such a lovely experience of taking care of yourself!

        Unfortunately, it’s not easy to get your hands on some zinc oxide that doesn’t consist of nano particles, which can easily be absorbed by your lungs while making your sunscreen! Make sure, to buy ONLY non-nano zinc oxide powder for this purpose and to wear a mask during the preparation!

        Keep in mind that homemade mixtures can go on unevenly, can leave portions of your skin unprotected and usually aren’t very water resistant.

        I tried some of these recipes myself (avoiding nano zinc oxide, of course!), but I burn easily and it simply didn’t protect me well enough. In addition, it was too greasy for my taste…

        • Josee says

          Hello ! I buy my zinc oxide from this company : http://www.naturosources.com (Canada). It’s NOT nanoparticules. I don’t know how long it can last if you pass a lot of time in water but shea butter and coconut oil are oils so they don’t dissolve easily. I’ve been using this sunscreen since this year so I’m a bit testing it. By now, I can say I love it.

          • says

            Hi Josee,

            you’re lucky! I learned that in some countries it doesn’t seem to be that easy to get nano-technology free zinc oxide.

            In addition, these self-made products didn’t work that well for me (I DID burn a little bit), so I simply didn’t feel like suggesting a few recipes was a good idea! Might be that I’m a little over-protective, but that’s how I think about it!

            However, be sure to re-apply your coconut-shea-sunscreen after swimming! The problem is not the oil, but the minerals loosening themselves in the water.

            Organic products often contain hydrogenated lecithin (a substance or mixture containing more or less concentrated phosphatidylcholine), which has the advantage to fix mineral pigments on your skin. Encapsulated in liposomes, they can‘t be washed off that easily. At least this is the main principle of many “natural” water-resistant sunscreens – apart from the use of waxes (beeswax), which can be pore-clogging though.

            But if you don’t have a problem with beeswax, you could try to add it to your sunscreen formulation!

            Lots of love!

  2. Anna Moyer says

    I’ve been using a pretty good diaper rash cream (aka zinc oxide) as a sunscreen for especially sunny days and so far my skin has been ok with it. However, I didn’t think to look at the stability of the oils in that, so thanks for bringing that up.

    I vaguely remember a post on Mark’s Daily Apple that talked about different things you could use as sunscreen, so I went and found it. It’s worth reading:

      • says

        Hi Anna,

        thanks a million for this “link”! It a great article! It’s all about controlling the composition of your own sebum just by eating the right things, so that oxidation caused by sun exposure will be minimized.
        @ everyone: Have a look at it! It’s a good read!

        Yes, diaper rash ointments can absolutely be an alternative. What’s the difference? Not much. Just marketed differently!

        The main difference is in the cream base. Diaper rash ointments have little to no water content, whereas a sunscreen base usually contains lots of water (listed as one of the first ingredients).

        The only “downside” is that you’ll never know the exact SPF-factor of your diaper rash cream. However, you can still have a look at the percentage of zinc oxide contained: between 15 – 22.5 % should offer you an adequate level of protection (with an estimated SPF of 20-30).

        Also, check that no nano-zinc is used!

  3. Tereza says

    Thank you, thank you, thank you! I was really looking forward to this article and when I saw it posted on Tracy’s Facebook I almost screamed:) Finally an informative article about sunscreens which even I can understand.

  4. Laura says

    Thank you Svea, this is so informative, and so easy to read and understand. I’m anticipating parts 2 and 3!

    • says

      Hi brook,

      honestly, I wouldn’t rely on a herbal oil as the only sun protection and then expose myself to UV radiation for hours. Don’t get me wrong, I still think it’s a great oil with amazing anti-inflammatory properties. It can help to speed the healing of wounds or bee stings, for instance. But I’m actually quite skeptical about the sun protection claims of oils in general, as these typically only have an SPF of two or lower.

      Are there any significant studies that prove that it effectively provides some kind of natural UV protection?

      • brook says

        i havent researched it enough to see…and the weather i have is generally cool and cloudy so it hasnt been a hugeee problem yet. I heard it from an herbalist named susan Weed who suggested it and i havent a burn yet soo…i guess i give it trial and error becuase im not a fan of applying actual sunscreen…

        • says

          I can so relate to what you’re saying! I‘m not that fond about wearing sunscreen either. But I burn easily and I‘m wearing it every time I‘m staying outside for a while! Or I‘m wearing a big straw hat and enormous sunglasses. I love sunglasses anyway. So you see, I’m trying to find the best possible compromise for me as well!

          However, I just want you to be careful! If you are planning to rely on SJW oil only I would be sure to wear a long sleeve shirt (linen is great in summer!), a big hat and sunglasses, at least during the midday hours. Living in Italy and having fair skin, I know that the sun is not something to take lightly. Try to seek the shade as often as you can and pimp up your diet with antioxidants and carotenoids! Avoid sugar, omega-6 fatty acids and drink lots of water!

          Anna Moyer mentioned that great article on Mark’s Daily Apple about how food can influence your body‘s resistance to UV radiation. Have a look at it!


          Personally, I don’t believe in SJW oil (or any other oil or herbal extract) having any sun blocking properties. I did a fast google research, and there seem to be great success stories, but also horror stories including second grade burns, so I wouldn’t risk it. But that’s just me.

          On the other hand, I imagine that SJW oil would be a great treatment AFTER sun exposure! It might help to calm down your skin and to reduce inflammation!

  5. Katie B says

    Hey Tracy :) I love your blog, i used to have bad acne but thankfully it seemed to go away by itself after i got older: i was one of the lucky ones i guess…

    I am writing to ask about your diet.. this might not be the area you specialize in but I have Crohn’s disease, but I have been having terrible stomach acid and have developed ulcers in my esophagus.. This is obviously an inflammatory disorder/ problem and i was wondering if the diet you recommend would work for my condition, to help lower acid, and maybe in the long run get rid of my ulcers?

    I was also wondering if you have come across any useful bloggers that specialise in diet for acid, crohn’s and ulcers?

    Thankyou very much! :)

    • says

      Hi Katie,

      I’d like to answer your questions as well, but I don’t know anything about Crohn’s disease or special diets that might help you …


    • Tracy says

      Oops! I totally missed this question. Sorry about that!

      I do believe that the diet and lifestyle i recommend would help with chrohns, as lots of my stuff is focused on digestion and lowering inflammation. I’m not sure about specific chrohn’s tips though. I wish I knew of some bloggers like me dealing with this specific disorder, but I don’t know of any, sorry!

  6. Yuriy says

    Awesome article Svea! I have 2 question I hope you can answer :)

    The first, I’m assuming this is considered one of the loser commercial sunscreens, but I bought it already about a week ago, unfortunately -_- … and I was just wondering what are your thoughts on the Kate Somerville SPF 50+ serum sunscreen?

    And the second question, I read somewhere that it’s good to mix 1-2 drops of jojoba oil (and perhaps other oils?) to your sunscreen before applying it the face. Is this a good idea? But it also makes me wonder if I do mix jojoba oil with a commercial suncreen (such as the kate somerville one) will there be any negative side effects? Like make the chemicals from the sunscreen penetrate further into my the skin??

    & ps thank you for answering my other question regarding Kae argan oil! :)

    Thank you!

    • says

      Hi Yuriy,

      I’m afraid, but that Kate Somerville screen seems to be extremely stuffed with gender-bending chemicals that mimic the effect of oestrogen and other potential chemical irritants. If you still have acne, don’t use it on your face at least!

      Or can you still send it back for a refund? That would be the best solution – this stuff is crap!

      In addition, advertising with such an extremely high protection factor is one of the most common sales tricks. Yet, a SPF of 100+ is most probably NOT that much of a benefit for your skin. Why? Find it out in my second article of this sunscreen series!


      And why the hell do you buy a high-protection sunscreen factor, if you then want to dilute it? Jojoba oil is a nice and stable oil, but it would make much more sense, if you would apply it first, let it sink in, and then apply the sunscreen – if it’s a mineral sunscreen. If you are using a chemical sunscreen instead, the sunscreen has to be the FIRST product you put on your skin: Chemical sunscreens work by interacting with your skin cells, whereas mineral sunscreens sit on top of your skin!

    • says

      Hi Loren,

      that sunscreen seems to be okay. Not great, but okay: It contains dimethicone (silicone) and phenoxyethanol, a preservative a few people get allergic reactions from (not everyone though 😉 ).

      So just keep on using it if you like it!

  7. Yuriy says

    Hey Svea! Long time no talk :p
    Just had a random question, organic shea butter is a seed oil… i think, but it does protect from UV rays, right? Would it be okay as a summer moisturizer??

    Thanks :) <3

    • says

      Well, it’s no seed oil but a “seed butter”. That’s the difference. The fatty acids profile is completely different, much more stable. It might protect you a little bit from the sun, but it’s definitely no sunscreen substitute. You’d have to use tons of it…
      But it’s stable and you surely can use it during the summer months if you don’t find it too heavy. Apply sunscreen if you have to stay in the sun for a while though.

  8. Tracy says

    hah it’s called a trackback… when you post something that links to another wordpress site’s article, these things show up automatically

  9. says

    Oh, okay, that’s funny! But, honestly, I didn’t expect it to appear in your links! Well, I still have to learn all that stuff! 😀


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