For those of us who get hyperpigmentation like melasma or dark spots from scars and pimples, sunlight is the enemy. It can make the discoloration deeper and more challenging to get rid of. While using SPF, in general, is essential for managing hyperpigmentation, Elizabeth Kream, MD, a dermatologist based in Chicago, says it's especially beneficial to look for mineral sunscreens that include iron oxide.
"If you are prone to hyperpigmentation, and especially for those with skin of color, please use a physical sunscreen, particularly one with iron oxide," says Dr. Kream, who is currently in her third year of residency at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "Opt for a physical sunscreen with a tint. The tint typically means that the active ingredient iron oxide is also on board, and this ingredient also provides visible light protection in addition to UV protection. Visible light is what we see—it's what goes through windows and is a known exacerbator of melasma and photo-aging.”
- Elizabeth Kream, MD, FAAD, board-certified dermatologist based in New York City
A 2020 study, which tested the efficacy of sunscreens with iron oxide on skin of color, confirms that these formulas should be the top pick for anyone dealing with hyperpigmentation. It found that iron-oxide-containing formulations "significantly protected against visible-light-induced pigmentation compared to untreated skin or mineral SPF 50+ sunscreen in Fitzpatrick IV individuals," or people with darker skin tones. What's more, "these results highlight that iron-oxide-containing formulas in a foundation format have dual functions and can provide additional benefits in patients' daily routine by masking existing pigmentation and preventing the development of pigmentation triggered by sunlight exposure, extending protection beyond the UV spectrum."
Another study from 2021 found that sunscreens formulated with iron oxides "provide enhanced protection against blue light, especially when combined with zinc oxide," which means they add another level of defense against photoaging.
In general, mineral sunscreens are a better choice than their chemical counterparts for anyone dealing with melasma or dark spots, because chemical formulas can inadvertently trigger hyperpigmentation. "The mechanism of action of chemical sunscreens is they absorb the solar radiation and transform it into heat. These particles then become excited, and when they revert back to their un-excited ground state, they will release heat onto our skin, and heat is a known trigger of melasma," says Dr. Kream. "Unlike chemical sunscreens, physical sunscreens don’t absorb UV radiation and dissipate heat; rather they will just reflect the UV radiation."
Though iron oxide is a mineral blocker, it's not often used as a stand-alone sunscreen like zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. So while you'll likely see one (or both) of those listed as active ingredients, iron oxides are often listed in the inactive ingredient section.
Once you've got your sunscreen, be sure to apply two fingers worth to your face and neck every two hours for optimal protection. Shop three of our fave sunscreens with iron oxide below.
3 best iron oxide sunscreens for hyperpigmentation
This tinted mineral sunscreen is made with zinc oxide and titanium dioxide to provide broad-spectrum UVA and UVB protection along with iron oxide to protect from visible light. It’s also rich in antioxidants to combat skin-aging free radicals and includes hyaluronic acid to quench and plump dry skin.
Made with zinc oxide, titanium dioxide, and iron oxide, this tinted mineral sunscreen provides SPF 30 protection. It’s available in two shades: medium-dark and light-medium.
This SPF 50 sunscreen uses zinc oxide, titanium dioxide, and iron oxide to protect skin from UV and visible light while artemia salina, a plankton extract, helps to boost the skin’s natural defenses and resistance to UV- and heat-induced stress.
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- Dumbuya, Hawasatu et al. “Impact of Iron-Oxide Containing Formulations Against Visible Light-Induced Skin Pigmentation in Skin of Color Individuals.” Journal of drugs in dermatology : JDD vol. 19,7 (2020): 712-717. doi:10.36849/JDD.2020.5032
- Bernstein, Eric F et al. “Iron oxides in novel skin care formulations attenuate blue light for enhanced protection against skin damage.” Journal of cosmetic dermatology vol. 20,2 (2021): 532-537. doi:10.1111/jocd.13803
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