My dermatologist swears by this sunscreen — so I had to give it a try

An acne-fighting, zinc-based sunscreen that doesn’t leave white stripes on your face? I had to try it.
By Colleen Sullivan

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As a beauty writer and sunscreen fanatic (I test an average of 50 sunscreens every summer), I love to interview dermatologists about the best sunscreens and new product trends.

One of my favorite dermatologists, Dr. Alexis Young, an assistant clinical professor of dermatology at Columbia University Medical Center, told me she recently started jogging outside due to gym closures and shared how she keeps her skin protected.

“I’m not used to so much unshaded direct sunlight!” she said of her new outdoor exercise routine. “I’ve been reaching into my very deep sunscreen sample drawer and trying everything," she said. "Yet, there’s one sunscreen I keep coming back to.”

Young's new favorite sunscreen, EltaMD UV Clear Broad-Spectrum SPF 46, isn't so new; it's been around since 2015. And chances are, you may have never heard of the product because its manufacturer, EltaMD, sells mostly in dermatologists' offices. But celebrities like Drew Barrymore and Mindy Kaling are big fans, and online shoppers are also discovering the dermatologist-approved sunscreen. It's also Amazon's No. 1 bestseller in the Facial Sunscreens category.

EltaMD UV Clear Facial Sunscreen Broad-Spectrum SPF 46

So I got my hands on a bottle, and immediately the labeling caught my attention: Transparent Zinc Oxide. Come on; zinc can’t be transparent, right? We’ve all seen lifeguards on the beach with white stripes down their noses, little kids running around the pool with white streaks under their eyes and across their foreheads. And this one contains 9% zinc oxide! How was I supposed to wear this daily under my makeup?

“Trust me, this one is clear,” reassured Young. “And zinc being a physical, as opposed to a chemical ingredient, is highly effective at blocking both UVA and UVB rays.”

But isn't zinc thick and greasy? I’m always concerned my sunscreen will cause my skin to break out. Young said that more than half of her acne patients are adult females and that she’s constantly educating them that if a product says it’s non-comedogenic (this one does), then it most likely will not lead to breakouts. “Irritation could develop from any topical product, but it’s more likely to happen with a chemical-based sunscreen, not a zinc physical blocker,” she noted.

With a bit of hesitation, I decided to road test the product. During my two-week trial period, we had lots of sunny skies with not one day of rain. I spent many afternoons out in my garden, my new source of therapy during the quarantine.

On day one, I reached for the little 1.7-ounce bottle, removed the top, and hit the pump. Let’s be clear— the formula is not clear. It discharges as a white cream that dries clear, yet it was not the sticky zinc I envisioned. “The majority of sunscreens with physical blockers like zinc or titanium can be very difficult to apply, almost like spreading glue, yet this one goes on very smoothly,” explained Young.

And I agreed. But how did they pull this off, I wondered? Without having to take a chemistry class, Melanie Timms, Senior Innovation & Commercialization Manager at EltaMD, explained their company’s use of a special technology, one that transforms zinc oxide into a micronized particle, allowing for transparency upon application.

More perks: the sunscreen is oil-free (another safeguard against breakouts), fragrance-free (scent can also be a skin irritant), and it contains 5% niacinamide, a derivative of vitamin B that has been found to have antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, and anti-aging effects on the skin. “Niacinamide is great for people who suffer from acne and rosacea, and also treats hyperpigmentation that can develop from chronic sun exposure,” adds Young. In other words, this sunscreen could actually help prevent breakouts.

I questioned the random 46 SPF. “Our company strives to be transparent in our label claims, therefore we always disclose the exact SPF number based on stringent third-party lab testing,” notes Timms.

What also makes this facial sunscreen special? It comes in a tinted version that blends well on all skin tones while adding a subtle glow to the skin. “As an added benefit, the iron oxide in tinted sunscreen works to block pigment-causing indoor visible light,” says Young, who cautions the tinted version might rub off on a fabric face covering.

EltaMD UV Daily Tinted Face Sunscreen Moisturizer

This sunscreen isn’t perfect. Although it’s designed for everyday use, it’s not water-resistant, so you’ll need to use a different sunscreen if you’re going to the beach or pool. I learned that the hard way, after a quick swim in a pool, the only day I ended up with a pink tone to my skin. It’s also not completely chemical-free, as it contains 7.5% octinoxate, a UVB filter.

Because it’s a popular product, it has had issues with counterfeit imitations, and you’ll see online reviews that question the product’s authenticity. If you can’t buy the product through your dermatologist, Timms suggests purchasing it on an EltaMD-approved site such as Dermstore, Amazon, and LovelySkin.

The sunscreen comes off with traditional cleanser (I swear by Clarins Cleansing Milk with Alpine Herbs), and after two weeks of use, my skin is looking clean and acne-free. I’ve found my daily summer 2020 sunscreen.

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