Top 10 Sunscreens for Oily Skin

Woman on a beach applying sunscreen to her arms
Everyone knows you need sunscreen -- no brainer, right? But what types of protection should you use if your skin is oily or acne-prone?
Š Vasic

Sunscreens help fight wrinkles. Really. And premature aging, leathery and loose skin, brown spots, scaly patches and even cancer growths. It's estimated that about 90 percent of all non-melanoma skin cancers (basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas) and as many as 65 to 90 percent of melanomas are caused by exposure to the sun's ultraviolet (UV) radiation, with more than 3.5 million new cases of skin cancers diagnosed every year. One in five people will develop a form of skin cancer during their lifetime [source: Skin Cancer Foundation, American Academy of Dermatology].

No matter your skin type or color, you need protection from the sun's UV rays.


Many people with oily skin also have problems with acne and take prescription medications that make their skin even more sensitive to the sun. When you have oily skin, grabbing a basic sunscreen off the shelf can make your skin worse, leading to clogged pores and breakouts. So do you just avoid the sun, risk damaging your skin or deal with the side effects?

Luckily, manufacturers have realized that there's a market for sunscreens for people with oily skin. The catch is that they can be harder to find and more expensive than other sunscreens. (That's because the most inexpensive sunscreen ingredients are typically thick and creamy, which isn't what oily skin needs.)

You also need to be sure that whatever sunscreen you use, it has an SPF of at least 15 (the higher, the better) and protects against both UVA and UVB radiation (which is known as a "broad spectrum" sunscreen). Just as with any other skin care product, look for phrases like oil-free, water-based and noncomedegenic -- meaning it's unlikely to clog your pores.

And don't forget: You can find protection for your skin outside the sunscreen aisle.

10: Don't Forget to Wear a Hat

Hats are an important part of a good sun protection regime, and unlike topical sunscreens, you won't have to remember to reapply anything every two hours.

When choosing a hat, look at its brim size, the shape and placement of the brim, and the material it's made from. Baseball caps or hats without a brim offer protection to the top of the head but can leave your neck, ears and parts of your face exposed. Choosing a hat with a wide, all-around brim increases your sun protection. These hats protect not only the top of your head, but also your chin, cheeks, nose and the back of your neck as well -- it's estimated that a tightly-woven hat with an all-around brim that's at least three-inches wide offers the equivalent of sun protection factor (SPF) 7 on your nose, SPF 5 on your neck, SPF 3 on your cheeks and SPF 2 on your chin [source: Baron].


9: Sunscreens With Organic Absorbers

Sunscreen with SPF 15 is recommended for most of us (up to SPF 30 if you have fair skin or burn easily), which -- when used correctly -- will block about 93 percent of the sun's damaging UVB rays. Be sure to apply 15 to 30 minutes before you go outside to allow it time to soak into your skin.

There are two basic types of sunscreen: One type absorbs UV radiation before it can damage your skin, and the other blocks or reflects the rays before damage can occur. Sunscreens with organic ingredients, also known as chemical sunscreens, are sunscreens that absorb UV radiation.


Chemical sunscreens are absorbed into our skin and protect us from UVA or UVB rays (or sometimes both) with ingredients such as avobenzone (also known as Parson 1789), cinnamates, retinyl palmitate, salicylates, and benzophenones such as diozybenzone, oxybenzone and sulisobenzone. While organic sunscreens can be some of the best topical sunscreen options for oily skin because they are offered in oil-free, light-weight formulas, it's important to be aware that some ingredients (including avobenzone, oxybenzone and retinyl palmitate) in these chemical sunscreens are under investigation because of concerns they may cause allergic reactions, may be linked to certain cancers or may be disruptive to people's endocrine systems.

8: Sunscreens With Inorganic Absorbers

In addition to chemical sunscreens, which -- as we just discussed -- are absorbed into the skin and protect us from sunlight by absorbing damaging UV rays, there are physical sunscreens, which are sunscreens with inorganic filters that counter damaging rays by physically blocking them from penetrating skin.

Physical sunscreens have never really gained mass popularity despite their great sun protective qualities, which is unfortunate because they offer some of the very best protection. The problem? They contain mineral ingredients such as titanium dioxide or zinc oxide, ingredients that can feel thick and pasty and can leave behind a white residue. But their protective qualities may be well worth a chalky complexion.


Because they aren't absorbed into the skin, these sunscreens are a great option for people with oily complexions. They don't cause allergic reactions and they don't clog pores. They also don't contain any oils. Recently, many physical sunscreens have been reformulated to make them less chalky, and they are now available in a rainbow of colors, as well as in new powder formulas that can be skin-friendly specifically for those with oily or blemish-prone skin.

7: Gel, spray or lotion?

When selecting your sunscreen, do you still reach for a lotion? The world of sunscreens has grown, and your stand-by staple may not be the best option for your oily skin.

Lotions and creams are often the best options for people with dry skin, because they are more likely to contain emollient ingredients. Sprays work well for people who are active, and they are quick and easy to apply. There are also stick formulas, which are easy to use around sensitive areas such the skin around your eyes, and wipes that may be more convenient for parents who need to apply sunscreen to small children. It's the gels that oily-skinned individuals should take a look at. Gels are good for oily skin types because they aren't oily and they aren't drying. They tend to sweat off more easily than other formulations, though, so remember to reapply often.


Currently UVA protection isn't included in SPF ratings -- that's a rating that only informs you about the product's UVB protection -- so no matter what form your sunscreen is in, be sure to look for brands that are labeled as broad-spectrum or multi-spectrum sunscreens to get the most complete coverage.

6: UV Protective Fabrics

As our suggestion to wear a hat shows, not all sun protection comes in a bottle or tube. In fact, sun protection can be as simple as covering your skin with protective clothing -- guaranteed not to clog your pores.

Just as topical sunscreens come with protection ratings (SPF), some clothing does as well. UPF stands for ultraviolet protection factor and it's used to rate clothing based on how much UV radiation can get through the fabric to your skin. Expect a t-shirt labeled as UPF 25, for example, to allow only about 1/25th (4 percent) of UV rays through its fabric [source: Skin Cancer Foundation].


UPF is based on a few characteristics of the fabric an article of clothing is made from. Fabrics that are loose fitting and darkly-colored with a tight weave have the highest UPF values, which means they do a good job of absorbing UV rays before they are able to damage your skin. Some UPF-rated clothing incorporates sun-blocking particles such as titanium dioxide, also used in physical sunscreens, embedded in the fibers to boost its protective qualities.

You don't necessarily need special fabrics to get some protection from the sun, though, and you probably already have clothing that offers some degree of protection. Even if it doesn't have a UPF label, if you have clothing with the attributes above -- loose-fitting, dark, tightly-woven -- it will offer UV protection. Synthetic fabrics such as polyester and nylon offer the most protection. And don't overlook your wardrobe staples -- denim jeans, for example, have a UPF rating of about 1,700 (well above the recommended UPF of 30 or greater) [source: Skin Cancer Foundation]. Clothing in good condition will offer the best protection, too. A t-shirt, for example, that's worn in spots or stretched out won't offer as much protection as one that is in good shape.

You can also give your everyday wardrobe a UV-blocking boost: Consider including a UVA/UVB additive in your laundry cycle. This is a simple way to up the sun protection of the clothing you wear every day.

5: Expensive vs. Inexpensive Sunscreens

While you may think you're getting better protection from a pricey sunscreen, how much your sunscreen costs doesn't really have much to do with how well or how poorly it protects your skin from UV rays.

A 2012 study conducted by Consumer Reports finds that it's actually the inexpensive sunscreens that are most likely to give you the most effective UV protection without issues of stickiness or greasiness. For example, the most expensive sunscreen tested sells at just shy of $19 per ounce and scored less effective than products selling for less than one dollar per ounce (in fact as little as $0.59 per ounce). What's the lesson here? When you find a sunscreen you like, stick with it. The best sun protection is one that you use, not the one that has the highest price tag.


4: Combination Sunscreens

If you have oily skin, you may not like the idea of slathering product on your face, but you shouldn't skip sun protection because you're afraid your skin will become slick and shiny. The cosmetics aisle often contains products that combine sunscreens with something else, such as moisturizer or foundation. While these products can save you time and money, remember that sunscreen is their secondary function. According to the American Academy of Dermatologists, "If you expect to be in the sun for longer than 10 to 15 minutes, dermatologists generally recommend applying sunscreen under your makeup -- even if the makeup has an SPF" [source: American Academy of Dermatologists].

Moisturizing, anti-aging, anti-acne and sun protection products can all work together without clogging your pores. The secret is to look for products that do more than one thing. Want to block damaging UV rays and bug bites? Choose a two-for-one sunblock with insect repellent blended into the formula. For anti-aging and sun protection benefits, look for topical products that combine sun protection with antioxidants such as vitamins C and E (beware, products containing alpha hydroxy acids may increase your chances of getting a sunburn).


Whether you choose a combination product or not, be sure you're applying your products in the correct order. To get the best results from all your skin care products, apply any topical acne medications or other skin treatments first to allow their ingredients to work, and then apply your daily moisturizer or moisturizer/sunscreen combination product.

3: Sunglasses

Sunscreens can protect our skin, but UV exposure can damage our eyes and the delicate skin surrounding them, causing burns, cataracts (clouding of the lens) and macular degeneration as well as cancerous and non-cancerous growths in and around the eyes. Wear sunglasses every time you're outside, no matter what the season and no matter what the cloud cover. During the summertime, UV radiation is three times higher than during the winter months, but summertime isn't the only time for eye protection. If you're at a high elevation, the level of ultraviolet radiation you're exposed to increases -- by as much as eight to 10 percent for every 1,000 feet above sea level. And don't forget that water, snow, and even sand and concrete reflect sunlight, increasing their harmful effects by as much as 80 percent [source: Skin Cancer Foundation].

Not all lenses protect against sun damage, though, so be sure to look for lenses that block 99 to 100 percent of both UVB and UVA rays -- especially important if you're partial to polarized, blue-blocking, mirror-coated or other specialty lenses, because not of them all offer UV protection.


2: Water-resistant and Sweat-resistant Sunscreens

If you're the type who spends a lot of time outdoors (no matter what season) or who can't get enough of the beach every summer, you may want to try a sweat-resistant, water-resistant or waterproof sunscreen.

Despite being called waterproof or water-resistant, these products aren't truly waterproof. You're not protected all day long if you've been swimming or sweating outdoors. A product is considered waterproof if it continues to protect you after you've been in water (or if you've been sweating) for an estimated 80 minutes, and water-resistant if it continues to protect you from damaging rays after an estimated 40 minutes. Remember to reapply your sunscreen head to toe every two hours and reapply after vigorous activity or as soon as you're out of the water.


One complaint about waterproof sun blocks is that they sometimes have a tendency to make skin feel dry. This is because they create a barrier to keep from washing off, and also often contain some alcohol so that they dry quickly after applying. While this is less likely to be an issue for oily skin, you still want to be careful about over-drying.

1: Choose a Water-based Product

Oil-based versus water-based sunscreens: This is one of the most important things to keep an eye out for when buying sunscreen to protect your oily or acne-prone skin. People with oily skin types want only the products that are water-based. Choose carefully -- look for labels that say oil-free and noncomedogenic.

If you're trying to limit the number of products you apply to your face every day, look at changing your daily moisturizer rather than adding another product to your skin care arsenal. Swap your oil-free, noncomedogenic lotion for one that contains at least SPF 15, and choose one with a tint if you'd also like to conceal blemishes and skin flaws.

Lots More Information

Related Articles

More Great Links

  • American Academy of Dermatology. "How to Select Sunscreen." AAD. 2009.
  • American Academy of Dermatology. "Skin cancer." (Mar. 9, 2012)
  • American Academy of Dermatology. "Sunscreens." (Mar. 9, 2012)
  • American Cancer Society. "Skin Cancer Prevention and Early Detection." 2011. (Mar. 9, 2012)
  • American Melanoma Foundation. "Facts About Sunscreen." (Mar. 9, 2012)
  • American Skin Association. "Sun Safety." (Mar. 9, 2012)
  • Baron, Elma D.; Kirkland, Eugene B.; and Diana Santo Domingo. "Advances in Photoprotection." Dermatology Nursing. Vol. 20, no. 4. Pages 265-273. 2008. (Mar. 9, 2012)
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). "Basic Information About Skin Cancer." 2011. (Mar. 9, 2012)
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). "Sunscreen: How To Select, Apply, and Use It Correctly." 2002. (Mar. 9, 2012)
  • Consumer Reports. "Best Sunscreens for your Summer." Consumer Reports Magazine. July 2009. Volume 74. No. 7.
  • Consumer Reports. "Best Sunscreens: Which Sunscreens performed best in our tests?" (Mar. 9, 2012
  • EyeCare America - The Foundation of the American Academy of Ophthalmology. "Sunglasses." 2007. (Mar. 9, 2012)
  • Gibson, Lawrence E. "Q&A - Does sunscreen expire?" Mayo Clinic. 2011. (Mar. 9, 2012)
  • Griffin, R. Morgan. "What's the Best Sunscreen?" WebMD. 2007. (Mar. 9, 2012)
  • Harris, Gardiner. "F.D.A. Unveils New Rules About Sunscreen Claims" The New York Times. 2011. (Mar. 9, 2012)
  • InStyle. "Summer Skincare." (Mar. 9, 2012),,20390991_20388136_20789163,00.html
  • Morganti, P., et al. "A Sunscreen Formulation for Acne-prone Skin." Cosmetics & Toiletries Magazine. February 2008.
  • Mayo Clinic Staff. "Sunscreen: Answers to your burning questions." Mayo Clinic. March 27, 2009.
  • Murad. "Oil-Free Sunblock SPF 30." Murad. 2009.
  • Nabili, Siamak T. "Sun-Sensitive Drugs (Photosensitivity to Drugs)." 2011. (Mar. 9, 2012)
  • Naylor, Mark F. and Kevin C. Farmer. "The Electronic Textbook of Dermatology." Internet Dermatology Society. 2000.
  • Nichols, Katherine. "Guide to protecting your skin from UV exposure." Honolulu Advertiser. October 3, 2001.
  • Robertson, Dennis. "Q&A - Choosing sunglasses: Is UV protection important?" Mayo Clinic. 2010. (Mar. 9, 2012)
  • Shultz, J., et al. "Distribution of sunscreens on skin." Advanced Drug Delivery Reviews. Vol. 54. Supplement 1. November 1, 2002.
  • Skin Cancer Foundation. "Clothing: Our First Line of Defense." (Mar. 9, 2012)
  • Skin Cancer Foundation. "Cool Clothes, Safe Skin." (Mar. 9, 2012)
  • Skin Cancer Foundation. "Skin Cancer Facts." (Mar. 9, 2012)
  • Skin Cancer Foundation. "The Skin Cancer Foundation's Guide to Sunscreens." 2011. (Mar. 9, 2012)
  • Skin Cancer Foundation. "Understanding UVA and UVB." Skin Cancer Foundation. 2009.
  • Szabo, Liz. "Q&A: The truth about SPF, sunscreen types, protection." 2010. (Mar. 9, 2012)
  • U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). "Sunscreens: The Burning Facts." 2006. (Mar. 9, 2012)
  • U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. "Sun: The Burning Facts." EPA. September 2006.
  • U.S. Food and Drug Administration. "FDA Aims to Upgrade Sunscreen Labeling." FDA. August 23, 2007.
  • U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). "Sun Safety: Save Your Skin!" 2011. (Mar. 9, 2012)
  • University of California San Francisco, School of Medicine. "Sunblock." 2011. (Mar. 9, 2012)
  • University of Iowa Department of Dermatology. "Sun Protection and Sunscreens." University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics. 2005.
  • Walk, Douglas. "There Goes the Sun." Slate. August 9, 2005.
  • World Health Organization. "Ultraviolet radiation and the INTERSUN Programme." (Mar. 9, 2012)