How to choose the right sunscreen for your face

Daily sunscreen should be part of everyone’s skincare routine. But with so many different products to choose from, which facial sunscreen is right for you?

With Australia having the highest rate of skin cancer in the world, affecting two in three Aussies before they’re 70 years old, there’s no doubt it’s essential to wear sunscreen* daily.

But with a wide range of sun protection products to choose from, how do you find the right one for your skin? And do you need a sunscreen that is specifically for your face?

Is facial sunscreen different to everyday sunscreen?

Wearing daily sunscreen helps to protect against the harmful effects of ultraviolet (UV) sun radiation and may slow down premature skin ageing.

“But if you wish to compare the traditional daily sunscreens with facial sunscreens, everyday sunscreens may be applied on both your body and face during a day out at the beach,” Gold Coast GP and skincare specialist Dr Tanya Unni says.

“Meanwhile, facial sunscreens have advanced to being formulated to cater to a variety of different skin types.

“Formula wise, a facial sunscreen is typically lightweight in comparison to body sunscreen, is non-greasy and is often formulated to be non-comedogenic, which means it won’t clog pores or cause acne breakouts.

“A facial sunscreen should also easily sink into the skin and not leave behind a white cast.”

What are the benefits of facial sunscreen?

Dr Unni says because there are so many different types of sunscreen formulas available in the market, it can make it easier for people to choose a product that best suits their daily routine.

“For example, there are sunscreens designed to offer protection and work as a primer to sit nicely under your makeup,” she explains.

“However, there are also tinted sunscreens available for those who wish to apply and go.”

Can you just use normal everyday sunscreen on your face?

While you can technically still use normal everyday sunscreen on your face, it may not always be the best option for your skin, Dr Unni says.

“Facial skin tends to be more sensitive and prone to issues like clogged pores, breakouts and irritation,” she says.

“And normal sunscreens may contain heavier or greasier formulations that can potentially clog pores and lead to breakouts.”

She also adds that facial sunscreens are designed to be gentle on the skin, and may include ingredients that provide additional benefits such as hydration, anti-ageing properties or mattifying effects.

What level of SPF should facial sunscreen have?

Cancer Council skin cancer committee chair Professor Anne Cust says the minimum SPF (sun protection factor) to look for in a facial sunscreen is SPF30 but, ideally, to choose a product with SPF50 or above.

“The numbers refer to how long you can spend in the sun without burning, essentially, so they indicate how strong the protection is,” Prof Cust explains.

Sydney dermatologist Professor Stephen Shumack says it is always important to use a sunscreen with the maximum SPF of 50 or 50+, and to reapply it every two hours if you are outside in the sun.

What are the different types of facial sunscreens?

Having evolved from the days of a traditional, thick and greasy cream-like formula, Dr Unni says sunscreens now can come in the form of a lotion, serum, moisturiser and even a facial mist.

“This offers a huge advantage for those who may have struggled to incorporate a sunscreen into their routine,” she says.

“And with formulations going that one step further and being formulated to cater to different skin types, there really is one sunscreen out there for every preference.”

Which facial sunscreen is best for your skin type?

Dry skin

“When choosing a sunscreen to use regularly on your face, it is important to consider the base,” Prof Shumack says.

“If you have dry skin, it may be better for you to choose a cream or an ointment base, as the lotions or liquid bases may irritate skin.”

Dr Unni adds it may be worth looking for products with hyaluronic acid, glycerine or ceramides to help lock in moisture and prevent further hydration.

Acne-prone skin

If you have acne-prone skin, look for a non-comedogenic and oil-free product that won’t block your pores and potentially cause blackheads and pimples.

“Opt for a lightweight formula that feels comfortable on your skin such as lotions, gels or serums,” Dr Unni says.

“These formulations tend to absorb quickly into the skin without leaving a heavy or greasy residue.”

Sensitive skin

For those with sensitive skin, Dr Unni recommends opting for physical sunscreens, otherwise known as mineral sunscreens.

“These formulations contain active mineral ingredients that create a physical barrier on the skin to reduce the risk of irritation or allergic reactions, Dr Unni says.

“Unlike chemical sunscreens, which contain active chemical ingredients, mineral sunscreens are gentler and more suitable for sensitive skin.”

Oily skin

According to Dr Unni, this means choosing non-comedogenic and oil-free sunscreens with a matte finish or formula to help manage excess shine.

“Water-based or gel-based formulas are particularly beneficial for oily skin types as they offer hydration without contributing to excess oiliness,” Dr Unni says.

Sunscreens must be at least SPF50+ and reapplied every two hours when outside.

Can you wear make-up with SPF instead of a facial sunscreen?

“In short, relying solely on makeup for sun protection isn’t ideal as most people apply makeup with SPF more lightly compared to sunscreen,” Dr Unni says.

While make-up products such as BB creams and foundations with SPF provide some protection, Prof Cust says it’s better to use a facial sunscreen in addition to these beauty products.

“A beauty product with SPF alone may not give you the same level of cover, so I’d recommend applying sunscreen under the beauty product,” Prof Cust says.

She explains when sunscreens are tested in the laboratory, a significant amount of product is used.

“In reality, people tend to use half as much as they do in laboratories,” Prof Cust says.

She adds using an adequate amount of a facial sunscreen as well as the SPF make-up product will provide the best protection.

What else should you know about facial sunscreen?

It’s important to note that sunscreen products approved for use in Australia are tightly regulated by the Therapeutic Goods Administration and tested to make sure they’re safe.

“Customers should be assured by the fact that what they’re buying is a safe, highly regulated product, and they do have strict rules around levels or particular ingredients in sunscreen,” Prof Cust says.

And if you’re interested in making facial sunscreen a habit, she says it is as simple as “putting your sunscreen near your toothbrush or your hairbrush, so that you can make it part of your daily routine”.

Read more on sun safety:

*Always read the label and follow the directions for use. Wear protective clothing, hats and eyewear when exposed to the sun. Prolonged sun exposure should be avoided. Reapply frequently.

Written by Cat Woods and Melissa Hong