Person putting cream on their face

Decoding Sunscreen

If skincare has a league of superheroes, sunscreen is one of the leaders of the pack. Sunscreens protect the skin from sun damage like skin cancer, skin injury, and premature aging.1 And best of all, there are sunscreens that won’t aggravate acne or cause skin breakouts.2

What is the primary purpose of sunscreen? Sunscreens protect from 2 different ultraviolet rays: ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB). While UVA is the primary cause of wrinkles and aging and UVB is the leading cause of sunburn, both are associated with an increased risk of skin cancer.1

Applying sunscreen should be part of your skin care routine regardless of skin tone or type, and whether you have acne now or are post acne breakout.1,2

Choosing a sunscreen may come down to how sensitive or prone to acne your skin is.2

Tip: Choose a sunscreen labeled as noncomedogenic. This is an oil-free sunscreen with ingredients that are less likely to cause breakouts than other sunscreens because they are formulated to have less pore-blocking potential.2

But how do you know whether your sunscreen is noncomedogenic? Interpreting ingredients on a bottle of sunscreen can seem daunting. Here is’s guide to what the labels mean:

Noncomedogenic: Noncomedogenic means the product is less likely to cause pore blockage, breakouts, or acne. Choosing a noncomedogenic sunscreen is better if your skin is prone to acne.2

Broad Spectrum: Broad spectrum describes a sunscreen that protects your skin from both UVA and UVB.3

SPF: Sun Protection Factor is a measure telling us how long you can stay in the sun while wearing sunscreen before burning compared to not wearing sunscreen. For example, wearing SPF 15 sunscreen means that it will take 15 times longer for you to burn than for someone not wearing sunscreen. The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends broad-spectrum sunscreen with at least an SPF 30 for extended outdoor time. Sunscreen also needs to be reapplied every 2 hours.3

Water-resistant: Sunscreen is not waterproof, so look for “water-resistant” or “sweat-resistant” on the label. Water-resistant sunscreen must be reapplied every 40 to 80 minutes when swimming or sweating.3

Active ingredients: There are 2 types of active ingredients in sunscreen that work differently to protect your skin from UV rays.4 Physical ingredients block the sun’s rays and chemical ingredients help absorb them.4

Physical: The minerals titanium dioxide and zinc oxide are used in many sunscreen formulas to help prevent sun rays from penetrating the skin.4,5

Chemical: The man-made ingredients avobenzone and octisalate are used in sunscreen to absorb UV rays before they can damage your skin. 4,5

The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) recommends sunscreen with physical blocking ingredients like zinc oxide if you have sensitive skin.5

Your dermatologist is also a great source of advice about sunscreen. And be prepared; you may have to try different sunscreens before you find the one that works best for your skin.


1. Sander M, Sander M, Burbidge T, Beecker J. The efficacy and safety of sunscreen use for the prevention of skin cancer. 2020;192(50):E1802-E1808.

2. Mukherjee, Tiarra. Sunscreen glossary: a guide for decoding every SPF term you need to know. Everyday Health. May 26, 2022. Accessed June 30, 2022.

3. Sun protection. Skin Cancer Foundation. June 2021. Accessed June 30, 2022.

4. Serpone N. Sunscreens and their usefulness: have we made any progress in the last two decades? Photochem Photobiol Sci.2021;20(2):189-244.

5. Sunscreen FAQs. American Academy of Dermatology. Accessed June 30, 2022.