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We’re strictly advised to use sunscreen when we’re using retinol. And by now, we all know the reason: retinol makes the skin prone to sunburn (photosensitive). But we’re not commonly informed of the type of sunscreens we should use when using an over-the-counter retinol cream or serum. Sun protection is a huge part of an effective retinol skincare routine. That’s why you need to be mindful of the formulation of sunscreens to use with retinol.
Vitamin A, whether it’s over-the-counter retinol or prescription tretinoin, is excellent for treating acne and aging skin. It works by speeding up the cell turnover rate. And it eliminates uneven skin tone, acne, fine lines, and sun damage. But retinol is known for making the skin sensitive.
If you haven’t noticed, there’s a huge difference between how your skin reacts to products pre-retinol and how it reacts post-retinol. A simple cleanser your skin loves can simply stop working for you once you start using retinol. Similarly, your all-time favorite moisturizer can start irritating your skin after you start using retinol.
The same goes for sunscreen. Your favorite formula may be too sensitizing for your new, post-retinol era, or mid-retinol era, for that matter. As someone who tests retinol products for a living, I’ve put together a list of sunscreens that are perfectly suitable to pair with your retinol serum/cream.
But first, I’ll tell you something you probably don’t know about the deal with using sunscreen when using retinol.
Sun Protection and Retinol
The link between retinol and sunscreen may surprise you. Because there’s a side of the story that’s overlooked. First I want you to focus on this statement that’s repeated over and over again. “Retinol makes the skin prone to sunburn.”
Well, skin being “prone to sunburn” actually translates to skin being prone to inflammation, which leads to wrinkles and dark spots at best and skin cancer at worst. That’s why we protect our skin with SPF in the first place, right?
How is retinol going to give you better skin if it makes your skin vulnerable to all that damage? Why would you use something that will put your skin at a higher risk? When you look at it like that, it looks like you’re better off without it.
What gets left out is that retinol can make your skin prone to sunburn in the beginning stage of your retinol use. And that changes everything!
Retinol boosts skin turnover by stimulating the production of new cells underneath the skin. This renewal causes the surface skin cells to die and shed as the new cells travel upward.
So basically, retinol takes over your cell renewal cycle. It recalibrates the “normal cell cycle”. And at the beginning of this new regulation, there may be a temporary stage where the birth rate of new cells and the death rate of old cells don’t match.
So surface skin cells shed rapidly but deeper layers don’t renew as fast. As a result, the outer layer of the skin thins a bit and becomes more sensitive to elements including sunlight. When the retinization period is over and your skin adapts to change, then photosensitivity returns to normal.
So try to ignore the fear-mongering around the usage of sunscreen with retinol. Sun protection is extra important only in the beginning! After that point, you’re using sunscreen because you need to maintain healthy skin and prevent future damage, just like everybody else.
The Best Sunscreens to Use with Retinol
As your major concern is sensitivity, redness, and irritation, mineral sunscreens will be the safest option. Unlike chemical sunscreens, physical/mineral sunscreens don’t irritate, sting, or burn. But keep in mind that your retinol journey is unique. There’s always a chance it might react to something.
Tinted or untinted, dewy or matte, below are the best sunscreens to use with retinol.
1. Darphin Intral Environmental Lightweight Shield SPF 50
As retinol starts to work, you may realize that your skin is no longer oily, which can be a good thing. But super dry, flaky skin usually doesn’t make the best base for that dewy skin look. If you prefer something with a radiant finish, this mineral sunscreen has a luminous finish. It’s incredibly light on the skin and spreads out very easily.
So you don’t need to rub and rub all over again, which might hurt when your skin is sensitive. It has SPF 50, which is great for summer weather too. The formula has a tint, but it disappears into the skin after you apply it and does not leave any residue. You can safely use it with any kind of retinoid product.
2. EltaMD UV Clear Broad-Spectrum SPF 46
If you’re using retinol for acne, then this is the best sunscreen to protect your face with. It’s incredibly gentle on the skin with its non-irritating, oil- and fragrance-free formula. The sunscreen protects vulnerable skin with SPF 40. And it hydrates with humectants like hyaluronic acid and lactic acid while calming redness and inflammation with niacinamide and vitamin E.
The matte finish sunscreen is not 100% mineral because of the addition of a chemical, namely octinoxate. Though it’s still an effective UV filter, it may not work for you if your skin is very sensitive. Other than that, the non-comedogenic sunscreen is great for people with oily and acne-prone skin who’re using retinol.
3. SkinCeuticals Physical Fusion UV Defense SPF 50
This one is a 100% mineral sunscreen formulated with zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. It has a very liquidy texture and it’s basically invisible on the skin. The tinted formula adapts to your skin tone, simply glides on the skin, and applies like a dream. The tint won’t give you any coverage.
But it still helps create an even-looking base and covers mild redness on the skin, which happens when you’re going through the “retinol uglies”. To amplify the UV protection, the fragrance-free formula contains plankton extract. The finish of the sunscreen is quite radiant and glowy and can work great for all skin types, especially dry skin.
4. CeraVe Hydrating Sunscreen Face Sheer Tint SPF 30
This one is more budget-friendly if you’re looking for a more affordable sunscreen to use with retinol. It’s gentle even on rosacea skin and won’t irritate sensitized skin. The mineral sunscreen is tinted and has a glowy finish.
And it’s super hydrating with hyaluronic acid. Plus, the addition of ceramides and niacinamide help the skin retain moisture, which helps mitigate retinol dryness as well. It applies like a moisturizer and does not leave any trace on the skin.
5. Supergoop! Mineral Sheerscreen SPF 30 PA+++
Not surprisingly, Goop has the best range when it comes to mineral sunscreens. This is not tinted, and it’s all mineral. If there’s no tint, there tends to be a white cast, which is not the case for this one. It’s an excellent, non-toxic one that’s sensitive-skin-friendly. It packs a hydrating blend made with hyaluronic acid squalane and it soothes with aloe.
It has a lotion texture and goes on easily with a natural, healthy-looking finish. No fuss, no muss, no surprises, just a gentle sunscreen that won’t aggravate sensitivity caused by retinol. It’s a broad-spectrum sun defense you can comfortably add to your retinol routine. And it plays well under makeup too!
Last but not least, I want to mention something that’s not a sunscreen per se but a multi-use product that happens to have SPF. Dr. Jart Cicapair Tiger Grass Color Correcting Treatment SPF 30. This is a green-tinted primer/CC/treatment that I’ve been loving for my rosacea skin. Concerning retinol, even though it’s not primarily a sunscreen, it still contains mineral-based SPF 30. And the fact that it evens out your skin tone is amazing for reducing retinol irritation and redness. It’s formulated with madly anti-inflammatory goodies. So keep that in mind. It’s very helpful. And if your lips tend to get dry, consider a tinted lip balm with SPF for moisture and protection.
How To Apply
To get the best protection, don’t forget to reapply your sunscreen every 2-3 hours. To cover all the bases, you can always layer sunscreen. Apply the first layer and wait until it settles to apply a second layer.
And when applying your sunscreen, don’t forget to apply it around the eyes as well. Using it over the eyelids is not advisable as the product can move into the eyes. But you can safely use your sunscreen on the under-eye area.
Additionally, dermatologists don’t advise applying sunscreen 15 minutes before sun exposure for no reason. This will help the product settle in and blend with your skin tone as well.
Sunscreen is not a 100% guaranteed thing. Help out your skin with its “retinol phase” and wear protective clothing as well as sunglasses.
This concludes our list of the best sunscreens to use with retinol. Hopefully, you now have a better understanding of the importance of sunscreen when using retinol. It just needs a little bit of effort on your part until your skin gets used to retinol.
Read Next: The Best Moisturizers To Use with Retinol