Did my chemical sunscreen give me hyperpigmentation and melasma?

I think I’ve mentioned a few times in the past that I don’t mind using chemical sunscreens. In fact, I recall writing that I use chemical sunscreens for sports. However, I realized that this is no longer true. Over these past two years, I’ve grown leery of chemical sunscreens. Maybe I’m finally sold to all the theories propounded by the scaremongers (or scare mongrels I like to call them).

The truth is, I’ve been making some observations and am increasingly concerned about the harm some of them can potentially do to our skin and I’ll tell you why in a bit. But first, let me share what happened to a reader who wrote to me just a few days ago about her sunscreen.

My name is Karin. I was reading your article from a couple years back about sunscreen. I am wondering if you’ve ever heard of XX sunscreen causing brown spots.

I had never had extreme spots before and two years ago I developed what looks like melasma on my cheeks and forearms. It was nearly instantaneous and it has not gone away. I truly felt that it happened in one day while at the beach—I was sitting under an umbrella and had used my new XX sunscreen for the first time that weekend.

I reapply sunscreen all the time and sit in the shade when possible. I’ve never had these dark spots before. Now I’ve had them for over a year. Is it really possible that it is old sun damage from childhood and it was just coincidental that it showed up after using this sunscreen?

I have been out in the sun many times. During that time, I was not necessarily at the beach, but I work in the yard, mow the lawn etc and even spend time in Jamaica every year. I’m always careful about sunscreen and when possible sitting in the shade. This was the first time I had used the XX sunscreen…and the brown spots were almost immediate and have not gone away.

I’m not revealing the brand here because this is not based on my own experience but let it be known that this is a rather popular counter brand from US and the sunscreen in question is a chemical one. Karin also told me that she had confronted the brand with her problem and of course, she was refuted. In fact, she was told that the spots surfaced because of the sun damage she’d developed when she was younger.

I ran some checks on the ingredient list and found that the product contains these active sun protectors: Oxybenzone (5%), Octisalate (5%), Homosalate (5%), Avobenzone (3%), Octocrylene (2.7%). It also contains some antioxidants. Going by the ingredient list alone, this product appears to offer broad spectrum protection.

While it is hard to conclude that this sunscreen indeed caused sun damage for Karin, her melasma-like patches appeared only after she’d used the product. Prior to that, I understand that she was always careful about using sunscreen and have been out under the hot sun before but had never developed any sun spots. So if we put two and two together, there is a connection somewhere. Anyway, I told her that this topic is of interest to me and I would do more research into it and after some digging around, this is what I found about some of the chemical filters used in this particular sunscreen.

Promote free radicals
A few of the active ingredients like Oxybenzone and Octocrylene promote free radicals to the skin when exposed to UV radiation according to research by the University of California. Avobenzone is another ingredient reported to degrade quickly in the sun (depending on what other ingredients are used in the same formulation). According to the research, the oxidative damage happens when the UV filters have penetrated into the skin and sunscreen has not been reapplied to prevent ultraviolet radiation from reaching these filters. Which means, chemical sunscreens with no photostable active ingredients need to be reapplied every two hours. But note that Karin did reapply so I’m not sure if the reapplication really worked or that the UV rays were just too strong.

Trigger hyperpigmentation
Something else I read at Examiner.com is that while the chemical sunscreen agents absorbed into the skin surface may prevent sunburn, they generally do it by absorbing UV rays in sunlight and dispersing the energy/heat into the surrounding tissue, which in turn can stimulate melanin production (as the skin’s heat sensors signal that it is being attacked).  So in essence, the process of absorbing the rays and dispersing the energy can still trigger hyperpigmentation in the skin.

Increase abnormal melanin production
Many sunscreens contain chemicals that are said to be estrogenic and that cause hormonal imbalance which in turn can lead to abnormal melanin production. This is why some pregnant women suffer from melasma as they experience increased estrogen. And you may like to know that lab tests have shown that Benzophenone (benzophenone-3), Homosalate and Octy-methoxycinnamate (Octinoxate) exhibit estrogenic activity (source). Moreover, parabens found in all chemical sunscreens are also said to be estrogenic although that topic remains contentious.

Cause skin irritations
Something else I want to highlight is that the chemical sunscreen as well as other chemical sunscreens typically contain alcohol and fragrance, amongst others, and these ingredients can cause skin irritations for some skin types. According to the American Family Physician website, skin irritation can lead to postinflammatory hyperpigmentation.

Concluding remarks
So based on these information I’ve found, Karin’s sunscreen might just have triggered the melasma-like patches for her because it contains some of the questionable ingredients highlighted. This is quite alarming because we all know sunscreens are meant to protect our skin against sun spots and not cause them to multiply. Granted, I don’t suppose everyone experiences such adverse effects using chemical sunscreens but if any of you reading this are using chemical sunscreens and have experienced increase in your pigmentation, it might be time for you to do a sunscreen audit. Personally, I’m steering clear of them completely as I’ll rather not take the risk. Anyway, I’m happy using mineral sunscreens, especially those using only zinc oxide.


  1. Michaela Baker says:

    So interesting. I found that about 10 years ago when I was using chemical sunscreen that even if my face was hidden from the sun all day, if I got sun on another part of my body, the melasma on my face would flare up. I still get some sun now but without the melasma flaring up. Wonder if that’s the connection …

  2. Eco Beauty says:

    Sunscreen was not the first product I changed when I switched to natural and organic products. Even when I was already using facial oils, I was still applying Diorsnow. To boot, it’s SPF 50 — one of the highest I’d used for daily wear. I used it precisely because it’s part of a brightening range and I was already having pigmentations.

    But during the 1 year + that I was using Diorsnow, my melasma actually became worse. I wasn’t sure then, of course, whether the chemicals in the sunscreen had something to do with it so I thought it was just because 1) I’m really prone to melasma 2) I didn’t wait long enough for the chemical sunscreen to ‘settle on my skin’ before heading out 3) I wasn’t applying enough.

    But as I considered switching sunscreens, I came across some similar studies which convinced me — especially the part where the ingredients absorb the UV rays and disperse the energy. I felt like it was getting a punch instead of a bullet — not deadly in one blow but still damaging in the long run.
    Eco Beauty last post is: The Natural Sunscreens in my Life

  3. Paris B says:

    This is very interesting, Sesame and I have to admit the theory does make a lot of sense. I used to use sunscreen with chemical blockers because it was what my skin could tolerate (because I couldn’t handle high zinc oxide content) and my current sunscreen is a hybrid version, containing ZO, TiO2 and chemicals. Wonder how that fares ? But I’m going to have a try of the Badger sunscreen I remember you writing about. You mentioned that the texture was lighter and the ZO content wasn’t as high so I’d like to see if I can finally wear a sunscreen that’s pure ZO and not break out ?
    Paris B last post is: Australis Voluptulash Mascara : My crusade for a Holy Grail volumizing mascara ends on the shores of Australia

  4. Lara Laverne says:

    Interesting topic indeed. Most of my friends are looking to natural skin products including sunscreen. God knows how many chemicals we are putting on our skin. It’s super hard to know what is right or wrong. great post. Loved this.

  5. Swati says:

    yes, this might actually be true! i have also heard many people saying the sunscreen doesn’t help them but then i thought it could just be the case of overexposure and under-application. but, the sunscreen ingredients do breakdown when exposed to sunlight causing lack of protection!!
    Swati last post is: Just Gossip Vol. 22 – Did you “Get on the Train baby”?

  6. Sarah says:

    Thank you very much for the great information. I have acne prone skin, and I use a great brand (with lots of chemicals) and I get heavy pigmentation post acne clear up ? ! I wonder if it is this chemically loaded sunscreen that I been using for 2 years now. Please help me find a brand that only has zinc oxide…HELP

  7. Gwen says:


    the sunscreen from Karin that she was using, what was the spf of that product? I have heard once that anything above spf40 creates hyperpigmentation and melasma can become worst. This is because anything above spf40 they have to use oil to boose up the spf even though it may be written “oil-free”. And because there is oil in the product, the result is reversed where the UV rays are absorbed into the skin creating hyperpigmentation. So i have stayed away from anything that is higher than spf40

    But these are just what i have heard with no scientific proof. Have you heard of anything as such?
    Gwen last post is: Normal Eyelash Curler VS Heated Eyelash Wand

  8. Annie says:

    Hi Gwen you got some interesting information there. Can you share the place where I can read more about that?

  9. Sesame says:

    Oh…from the sound of it, I’ll link it to the hormones. What’s interesting is that I assume you no longer use chemical sunscreens and don’t have the flare ups.

  10. Sesame says:

    There are some chemical filters said to be photostable but the problem with most chemical sunscreens is that they are formulated with a few active ingredients and even add zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide. I understand that the latter don’t react well with some chemical sunscreen ingredients too.

  11. Sesame says:

    I’d thought a combination of chemical and physical filters are better but from what I’ve read, some of the physical filters actually degrade some chemical ones so it depends on the formulation.

    The Badger one is nice in terms of texture etc but I haven’t used it long enough to ascertain if the protection is sufficient. But I do trust the brand though so I don’t mind recommending it.

  12. Sesame says:

    It also depends on skin types. Some are “hardier” and can withstand more chemical ingredients without suffering adverse effects.

  13. Sesame says:

    The chemical ones are particularly volatile because there are not one or two but usually four or five active ingredients. Sometimes these may react adversely with one another…

  14. Sesame says:

    Where are you based? Badger, Marie Veronique Organics, Devita, Juice Orgnics, 100% Pure…are some brands with zinc oxide only active ingredients. I particularly like Marie Veronique Organics and Badger.

  15. Sesame says:

    @Gwen: It’s SPF50. I’ve never heard of oil causing UV rays to be absorbed into the skin and I’ll definitely like to find out more. I am under the impression that some oil can provide sun protection. My sunscreen contains oil too and I’ve been using for a few years now.

  16. Natasha says:

    Fascinating. I feel bad for Karin — and hope that by switching sunscreens, her melasma will improve. I stopped using chemical sunscreens when I started working outdoors and noticed that my skin felt like it was burning in the sun when I wore chemical-only sunscreens, but when I used something with Zinc Oxide or Titanium Dioxide, my skin felt much more comfortable.

    I have a Badger sunscreen, but it is extremely thick and I only use it on my nose and ears… which one do you recommend?
    Natasha last post is: Snapshots from Heaven…

  17. reese says:

    The badger one is really good, and I keep going back to it, but lately I have picked up Florame http://shop.justlifeshop.com/florame-sun-cream-face-high-protection-spf30-40ml.html .

    However it has no titanium oxide or zinc oxide which makes me wonder whether it really works. It doesn’t look light but it feels lightweight on the face.

  18. Tine says:

    This is very interesting. I’ve been using chemical sunscreen most of the time because most physical ones are too thick for me and they break me out. But the one time I did use physical sunscreen for an extended period of time, I didn’t notice any difference to my hyperpigmentation.
    On the other hand, my hyperpigmentation is increasing. While I think it’s more due to genes (mum has severe hyperpigmentation), it does make a lot of sense if the chemical sunscreens I’ve been using has been accelerating the melanin production process. Oh boy, this is worrying all right.

  19. Jyoan says:

    It is nice to finally hear you speak on chemical sunscreens. Very personally, I steer clear of chemical sunscreens because they make my skin react by forming bumps that sometimes itch. I very strongly believe that this is not due to alcohol alone, and I know that I am not allergic to perfume type of alcohol. I think the baseline, really is that, if the chemical sunscreen causes skin reactions, surely that means there is something about those chemicals that is not so compatible with human skin.

    Furthermore, I have read from various sources that active ingredients like avobenzone, oxybenzone, and octinoxate are potential carcinogens. Like you, I take no risk on that.
    Jyoan last post is: My First Yankee Candle – Sparkling Pine

  20. Sesame says:

    Burning? Woah…does not sound good. So there are lots of people with other issues using chemical sunscreens too. And there is some chance that Karin’s skin condition can improve with the right products but she has to stop using the chemical ones altogether.

    This is the new Badger sunscreen which I just reviewed very recently: https://www.vivawoman.net/2013/07/02/badger-spf30-aloe-sunscreen-lotion-review/. You might want to give it a try but I say it’s good for casual sun exposure only.

  21. Sesame says:

    Florame sounds interesting. According to the ingredient list on the website, it uses zinc oxide and titanium dioxide.

  22. Sesame says:

    If pigmentation is an issue for your skin type, perhaps consider switching to a physical one completely. It’s better to be safe than to risk it.

  23. Sesame says:

    Yes, I realized many people are sensitive to the ingredients and you make a good point that it could be the ingredients aren’t so compatible with human skin. I’m especially concern when Natasha mentioned that she gets this burning sensation when she used chemical sunscreens.

  24. reese says:

    aaahhh… how could I missed that? They have a spf 50 as well, will try that once I am done with my current one. Do try it, its not watery but its absorbs really well into the skin.

  25. Sesame says:

    I often missed some ingredients in the labels too until I get home or start reviewing. They have an SPF50? Okay, might check that one out.

  26. kaithlin93 says:

    Just when Im loving my chemical sunscreen by la roche posay – Anthelios SPF50 Dry Touch Gel-Cream, this post gets me freaked out…

  27. Sesame says:

    I’m sorry but I think it’s worth highlighting. Then again, chemical sunscreen may work for some skin types.

  28. Leila says:

    I love my La-Roche Posay Anthelios! Using it every day caused my facial scars and uneven skintone from acne to lessen dramatically this past year. I would prefer to have a physical sunscreen for my face and neck too, but I have very dry skin and most of them are very difficult to use on my skin type, causing patchy white marks and drying out my skin even further (despite good moisturization beforehand i.e. oils, serums, etc.)

    Also, I was getting a few freckles on my hands from driving, after using Anthelios on my hands every time before I went outisde, they aren’t there anymore. Keep in mind I took very early action. It only took a few weeks to fade. The fact that they faded led me to have more trust in its very high UVA protection that prevents darkening of skin.

    I think you don’t need to worry with the La-Roche Posay, they seem to be a brand that does things very carefully and well when it comes to skincare (and dermatologist recommended!), but I think it’s still worth keeping this information that Sesame has shared in mind. The information on this blog has certainly been very helpful and always good to take note of, even if it doesn’t affect you at the time for you may need the information for future. It’s good to be informed!

  29. So says:

    This is the first time I come across sunscreen & hyperpigmentation… I had been using all natural basic cosmetics (mostly diy) and I hadn’t been in the sun for years. One day I applied Aubrey’s sunscreen spf 30 only on my cheekbones (was in the tropics) Ever since I have 2 dark patches on my cheekbones. The only explanation I could come up with was that the cheekbones were sweaty (more than the rest of my face) and that the sweat (water) was “magnifying” the uv’s. Any thoughts on this?

    I know as we age we tend to get pigmentation spots, patches and masks. I see many Asian skins with this issue. I am trying to brighten the patches with Vit C serum/ fruit juice (lemon, papaya etc), I stay out of the sun, wear parasol when I am in Asia and try to find a good sunscreen. This is a hard job. I don’t like to use chemical sunscreens because they mess up your hormone balance. I used many different brands both physical and chemical, but no brand stayed. The latest one I am trying is Lovea. Unfortunately it did not met my expectations. So I want to make my own sunscreen and if that’s not working out, I am going to live a sunwise and sunscreen-free life. Your blog is the best online find of this week! Nice meeting you!

  30. Sesame says:

    @Leila:Glad LRP is working well for you. I guess the ingredients used in the formulation is more photostable. Is it Mexoryl? Anyway, this is the brand of chemical sunscreen I used to use.

  31. Sesame says:

    Thanks for coming by!

    I guess the sweat actually dilutes the protection. Not sure about magnifying the UVs. As for making your own, well, you can give it a try as it does give you more freedom to add ingredients that matter to you. However, I suspect that it’s not that straightforward to create.

  32. Lk says:

    Thanks for the article. I noticed on my face too hyper pigmentation…even though I used sunscreen daily on my face… I’m one of those people who applied 30 minutes prior to going out for a 20 minutes lunch break walk, used everyday before putting bb cream, or sometimes just sunscreen and powder only but somehow i ended up what is look like dark spots from the sun… i can’t seem to get rid of them too… i used to be able to buy one shade that will match my skin tone… now i always have to buy 2 different shades and mixed them up for foundation, bb cream etc… so annoying…

    i even reapplied so many times when i’m at the beach but i ended up with dark spots… these days i rarely go to beach… although my insurance doesn’t cover seeing dermatologist i went and saw every year.. they’re not helpful at all… use sunscreen, etc… could be from when you’re young not using sunscreen, could be from hereditary… but i know no one in my family use sunscreen as much as i do and they don’t end up with dark spots on their face…. i’m sure you posted some recommendation but have you ever review shiseido brand? what do you think of it? i been using different brands just to see how my skin take it…

  33. Sesame says:

    It could be skin type. For example, I just read that those with red hair are more prone to these skin issues. But you’re wise to stay away from the sun as far as possible. Same for me too. Although my sunscreen is effective but I do get spots over time and like what you said, it could have resulted from the years of no protection. But at the least, I think my skin condition has improved compared to the times I did not use sunscreen.

  34. So says:

    You may be right about making your own sunscreen. That’s why I ordered the Badger 30SPF to have a try, I am really excited about it.
    Very soon I will be leaving Europe for SE-Asia for several months, this means wearing parasols in the sun without having people staring at me!
    So last post is: Buddha’s Garden of Eden

  35. Sesame says:

    I hope you’ll like Badger SPF30. I’m still wondering if the percentage of zinc oxide is sufficient but I do like how well this applies on my skin.

  36. Karen says:

    I know this is a few years past, but I wanted to share my experience. I’ve got melasma on my upper lip when i was 30 due to unknown reasons..no pregnancy, never took birth control. I don’t like chemicals so really my only option was sunscreen. I applied sunscreen religiously everyday multiple times. It took a long time probably 4 years before it finally disappeared. Thank goodness it was extremely embarrassing to have a permanent mustache. But as the malasma on my lip had began to fade I began to get brown spots all over my cheeks and chin. after 5 years of consistently wearing sunscreen, my face now looked worse than it ever had before. I stopped using the sunscreen and the the spots stopped getting worse and even faded a little. I thought this year that I needed to probably start wearing it again on my face to help the spots. Only after a week of use the spots have become way worse. I really believe it’s the sunscreen, but yet i’m scared to not protect my face. And by the way I use Blue Lizard sunscreen for babies.

  37. Zab says:

    Every time I used sun screen or any cream to treat melasma it become worse. I don’t know why

  38. Sesame says:

    Could be something in the ingredients. Have you seen a dermatologist?

  39. Preeti says:

    Hi even I was not having hyperpigmentation before but me n my sis recently from 2 months started sunscreen lotion .. suddenly dark spots looks lik Melasma appeared on my nose Nd on my sis nose too that too after using this sunscreen lotion .. so I stopped using it

  40. Neha Deshwal says:

    Hi sesame
    I have just gone through the various issues discussed by ladies from different parts of the world on chemical sunscreens and it’s harmful effects. Believe me it felt like they all were talking about me as I had such a clear and bright skin even during my teenage years but then in late 20s I started using sunscreen that were having parables, alcohol, oxybenzone etc. etc. That you mentioned and believe me instead of working on my few freckles only three spots that time I had freckles all over my face and recently got a big patch of melasma too. Only then I searched for the reasons and got to know about that the culprit is my chemical sunscreen. Today only I got my physical sunscreen with zinc oxide 25% hope it will do some good to my acne, scars freckles and melasma

  41. Namitha says:

    I used suncreen on my face everyday for 2 years..it has considerably darkened up my face.how can i reverse the damage unnaturally

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