I’ve interviewed hundreds of dermatologists over the years, and when it comes to naming the most frustrating skin concerns in terms of their difficulty to treat, melasma, which affects nearly 5 million people in the U.S. alone, nears the top of the list. When asking one doctor, if you could invent any device in the field of dermatology right now, what would it be, and they replied, “a magic wand to get rid of melasma.” The pesky brown patches typically show up in women and worsen with certain hormonal fluctuations, but two other big triggers are exposure to heat and sun.
That’s where the importance of sunscreen comes into play. I know this all to well: During my years living in South Florida, my melasma was the worst its ever been—it looked like I had dirt on my face—and I couldn’t go anywhere without lots of foundation and concealer. I wanted so badly to let my skin breathe and I admired other beauty editors’ glowing complexions, but it wasn’t in the cards for me then. It was during these years—my mid-to-late 20s—that I also discovered the power of a really good mineral (physical) sunscreen, and learned that chemical SPFs aren’t ideal for those with this type of hyperpigmentation. Here’s why, as well as the top mineral sunscreens dermatologists regularly recommend.
“For my patients with melasma, I recommend using a mineral, physical sunscreen rather than one that is absorbed into the skin. My goal is for the UV rays to be reflected off the skin before they can reach the pigment forming cells, aka melanocytes. It is also best to have broad-spectrum protection, even against blue light and some wavelengths of infrared light, which can also exacerbate melasma. I have my patients use a vitamin C serum under their sunscreen, too, for added antioxidant protection, and I make sure they know to reapply the sunscreen several times a day.
—New York dermatologist Doris Day, MD
“For melasma, I always recommend mineral sunscreen that’s water-resistant. My favorites are ISDIN Eryfotona Actinica ($60), a shake lotion, and Skin Better Sunstick ($55). Both rub in quickly with a silky feel, and I have patients layer them with the Eryfotona on their full face and the sunstick over that in the areas of melasma. Patients can easily apply makeup over that.”
—Nanuet, NY dermatologist Heidi Waldorf, MD
“Melasma is a very multifactorial, not only UVA and UVC, also UVB, infrared radiation, heat, inflammation and hormones. Therefore you want a sunscreen that protects you from all of these factors.
I recommend only physical sunscreens for my melasma patients. Chemical sunscreens help stop the effects of the sun by absorbing the UV rays chemically, and some chemical degradation products from sunscreen can be inflammatory, which can trigger melasma. I also prefer sunscreens that contain blue light blockers, because in addition to UV radiation, sitting in front of the computer all day being exposed to blue light can also exacerbate melasma.
I like SkinCeuticals Physical Fusion ($36), an all-mineral SPF 50 sunscreen that not only contains zinc oxide and titanium dioxide to block UV rays, but also iron oxide, which is powerful in protecting against blue light. It also has a nice lightweight, universal tint. SuperGoop! Mineral Sheer Screen ($38) is a zinc oxide sunscreen that delivers broad-spectrum SPF 30 and helps filter blue light. And lastly, ISDIN Eryfotona Actinica ($60), which is an SPF 50+ targeted for actinic damage, but I also recommend it for my melasma patients since it contains repair enzymes that help repair damage caused by the sun. We know that melasma is exacerbated by the sun, so this product helps protect and repair at the same time.”
—New York dermatologist Julie Russak, MD
“Strict sun protection for patients with melasma is an essential component of treatment and for preventing relapses. I recommend mineral-based sunscreens that are tinted to block ultraviolet light and visible light, and newer formulations have been developed for all skin types and complexions. Three I like are skinbetter science Sunbetter Advanced Mineral Protection Tone Smart SPF 75 (titanium dioxide and zinc oxide) ($75); ISDIN Photo Eryfotona Ageless Ultralight Emulsion SPF 50 (zinc oxide, $66); and ISDIN Isdinceutics Mineral Brush On the Go Facial Powder 50 (titanium dioxide and zinc oxide; $55).”
—Glenn Dale, MD dermatologist Valerie D. Callender, MD
“For melasma, I like mineral sunblocks rather than chemical sunscreens: Imagine putting on a raincoat that blocks everything compared to a sponge trying to absorb stuff, to compare the two. My favorites include Neutrogena Sheer Zinc SPF 50 ($13) and Alastin HydraTint Pro Mineral SPF 36 ($55). I am not a fan of mixing sunscreen into moisturizer as it ‘dumbs down’ both formulas and most people don’t need sun protection to walk the dog or go to their car at 8 a.m.”
—West Palm Beach, FL dermatologist Kenneth R. Beer, MD
“There are so many elegant and effective sunscreens out on the market, such that I often tell my patients that my favorite for them is the one they will use every single day. However, I do have a few personal favorites, and I am lately leaning more and more toward physical sunscreens for myself as I get older and because I also suffer from melasma. Plus, physical sunscreens may be more effective for pigmentary disorders like melasma because they can also block indoor lighting. Although chemical and physical sunscreens are equally effective in protecting against UV damage and the sun, physical sunscreens containing zinc oxide, titanium dioxide and iron oxide tend to be better tolerated by sensitive skin in my experience and can also protect against indoor lighting, a significant trigger in melasma.
My top three lately are ISDIN Eryfotona Actinica SPF 50+ ($60), skinbetter science Sunbetter Sheer SPF 70 Sunscreen Lotion ($75), and Colorescience Sunforgettable Total Protection Face Shield Classic SPF 50 ($39). As you can see, each is broad-spectrum and has an SPF greater than 45, which is the level I always recommend. However, as importantly, each is also very elegant even under makeup and has a tinted version for those who want a little color. An elegant effective sunscreen will improve compliance and everyday use, which are essential to any skin-care regimen. Who wants a sunscreen that balls up, feels like a layer of plastic on the skin, or makes you look like a ghost? It will for sure end up sitting idly unused on the bathroom countertop! Finally let’s not forget that protective eyewear, hats and UPF clothing are fantastic and should be a priority for anyone wanting more sun protection, but are especially important for those suffering from melasma.”
—Bloomfield Hills, MI dermatologist Linda C. Honet, MD
“I love the EltaMD UV Clear Broad-Spectrum SPF 46 Sunscreen ($37). It is a perfect daily-wear sunscreen, as it goes on with a very sheer quality and doesn’t cause acne. In fact, there are benefits of it for acne-prone individuals. As a dermatologist, the thing I would love every person to know is that when it comes to melasma, the most important thing is to be protected all the time. There is no substitute for having a sunscreen on at the right time and no do-overs if you are caught outside in the heavy sun when you aren’t expecting it. That’s why it pays to wear this sunscreen every day, even in winter!
Our newest and most exciting option for those who have experienced melasma already is the SkinCeuticals Daily Brightening UV Defense Sunscreen SPF 30 ($54). It contains tranexamic acid to brighten, as well as 7-percent glycerin to hydrate. Additionally, it has mica for reflection properties. And, of course, it offers broad-spectrum UVA and UVB protection!”
—Omaha, NE dermatologist Joel Schlessinger, MD
“In reality, any sunscreen that someone uses will be one of the most important steps someone can take for their melasma, but my go-to is a physical sunscreen. Some of my favorites are ISDIN Eryfotona Actinica ($60), Alastin HydraTint ($55) and skinbetter science Tone Smart ($75).”
—Fort Lauderdale, FL dermatologist Dr. Matthew Elias
“Melasma needs zinc, titanium or iron oxide in front of UV, but also evening laptop blue light—studies have shown that iron oxide (very similar to other oxides) helps prevent and improve melasma patients exposed to blue light. My favorites are the mineral sunscreens from EltaMD UV Elements Broad-Spectrum SPF 44 ($36.50)and SkinMedica Essential Defense Mineral Shield SPF 35 ($38).”
—New York dermatologist Orit Markowitz, MD
“My favorite sunscreen for people with melasma is really any one that they will routinely use and feel comfortable using that has at least an SPF 30. I tend to like the chemical-free mineral sunscreens, and my go-to is the Alastin HydraTint Pro Mineral Broad-Spectrum SPF 36 ($55). It’s a great one because it has a little bit of makeup-like coverage, but still gets the job done as a sunscreen.”
—Delray Beach, FL dermatologist Dr. Janet Allenby
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