Sun Protection and Sensitive Skin: Your Questions Answered

Worried about choosing the wrong SPF formulation? We’ve got you covered (no pun intended).

By Georgia Gould
Jun 23, 2020

Worried about choosing the wrong SPF formulation? Feel like you break out the minute you even glance at the sun? We’ve got you covered (no pun intended).

Protecting sensitive skin from the damaging rays of the sun can be tricky business. Which products do you choose to ensure your skin doesn’t react? Are there specific ingredients in sunscreen you should avoid at all costs? And arguably the most important question of all, is your skin allergic to the sun? 

If your head is exploding with more questions than you can take, take a deep breath and read on, because we’re here to answer them all in this ultimate sun protection guide for sensitive skin.

1. What Are The Symptoms of a Sun Allergy? 

If you suffer with an itchy, red rash that’s bumpy, scaly, crusty or blistered and occurs on exposed skin after spending a certain amount of time in the sun, you may have polymorphic light eruption (PMLE), the most common form of sun allergy. 

“It can be hard, however, for individuals to separate out a sun allergy from having skin that simply becomes inflamed with heat,” explains James A. Yiannias, M.D., Mayo Clinic. 

“Many times, patients will self-diagnose a sun sensitivity, when the actual diagnosis could be dermatitis that is simply aggravated with heat. I always recommend visiting your dermatologist to help discern the difference.”

If you’ve been diagnosed with a sun allergy, the best way to keep it under control is to stay out of the sun – especially when it’s at its peak between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. But we know that’s easier said than done, so the next best thing is to ensure you wear protective clothing, sunglasses and a broad-spectrum sunscreen of at least SPF 30 whenever you’re exposed. For most, PMLE is hereditary, but it can also be triggered by factors such as medication, fragrance or certain chemicals in your skincare products, so if something other than genes is triggering your reaction, try to pinpoint it (again, your derm can help with that) and avoid it.

2. Chemical or Physical Sunscreen – What's Best for Sensitive Skin? 

While chemical (also known as synthetic) sunscreens are often thinner, lighter and easier to apply, they can sometimes cause irritation, redness and blocked pores. How so? Well, chemical sunscreens work by combining multiple ingredients that penetrate the skin to create a chemical reaction which absorbs UV radiation and converts it into infrared heat. This heat is then released by the skin. 

Many people are fine with chemical sunscreens, but if you have sensitive or redness-prone skin, you’re better off with a physical (or mineral) sunscreen. That being said, there are still chemical formulations that exist for sensitive skin, so don’t write them off completely…

Unlike their chemical cousins, physical sunscreens contain active minerals that are hard-working but super-gentle on the skin – say hello to zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. These active ingredients work by sitting on the skin to deflect, scatter and absorb the sun’s damaging rays without causing irritation or redness. Physical sunscreens also protect against both UVA and UVB radiation which makes them automatically what’s known as ‘broad spectrum.’ More on that later. 

On the negative side, physical sunscreens sometimes feel a little heavy on your skin, but recent breakthroughs in technology mean that most formulations are micronized and go on much easier than those thick, white creams from decades ago. 

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3. Which Specific Ingredients in Suncare Should My Sensitive Skin Avoid? 

Most importantly, fragrance-free is the only way to go if you have a skin sensitivity. Alcohol is also a no-no (in your sunscreen, of course, fine in your margarita) and avoid common allergens such as preservatives, formaldehyde and inexpensive metals like nickel and chrome. We also recommend you steer clear of the ingredients used in chemical sunscreens – ie: avobenzone, oxybenzone, octinoxate and octisalate in favor of the far gentler mineral ingredients, zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. 

It’s also worth noting that if your skin is oily and acne-prone you should try to avoid sunscreens that come loaded with emollients like fatty acids and plant oils. 

To significantly reduce irritation, your safest and easiest bet is to always choose a Top Allergen Free sunscreen. This gives you peace of mind that you’re avoiding all the top common allergens and irritants, based on clinical data from both ourselves and the Mayo Clinic. You’re welcome.

4. Do I Need To Wear Sunscreen All Year Round? 

“The basic answer is yes,” explains David A. Mays, PharmD, MBA. “Sun damage is not just a summertime hazard.”

Contrary to popular belief, the ozone layer, which is responsible for helping block UVB radiation before it hits the skin, is actually thinner during the winter. This means that a massive 80 percent of those damaging rays go right through the clouds and hit your skin, whatever the weather. 

“It’s also important to realize that even when you’re indoors, you’re exposed to potentially damaging UVA rays because they can still reach your skin from windows in your house and car,” adds David.

This is why we recommend wearing a mineral-based, broad-spectrum sunscreen every day of the year. Of course, slathering your whole self with SPF 30 in the middle of December when most of your body is covered in jeans, knitwear and a thick winter coat is a complete waste of time, but exposed areas of your skin such as your face, neck and even your hands should always be protected if you’re venturing outside.

5. On That Note, What Do ‘SPF’ And ‘Broad-Spectrum’ On My Sunscreen Actually Mean? 

First, let’s step back a few notches. As we’re sure you know, sunlight is split into various forms of radiation. The ones we care about most are UV (ultraviolet) A and B which are invisible to the naked eye, but together are the primary causes of skin damage. 

UVA rays have the longest wavelength and count for about 90 percent of the UV radiation reaching the Earth's surface. UVA penetrates deep into the skin's surface, releasing free radicals, causing DNA changes and making it accountable for things like premature aging and skin cancer. UVB, on the other hand, is shorter in wavelength, so doesn’t penetrate the skin on such a deep level, but plays a big part in tanning and is the primary cause of sunburn.

Now, back to your bottle of sunscreen. When it comes to protecting your skin, we often talk about broad-spectrum as being the only way to go. Why? Because you know that SPF (sun protection factor) number you live by on the label of every sunscreen bottle? Well, SPF bears absolutely no relevance to a product’s ability to shield your skin from UVA. It only indicates its UVB protection rating. Broad-spectrum, however, means it protects you from both. That’s why it’s so important.

6. Is It Okay to Use A Body Sunscreen On My Face? 

People with ‘normal’ skin (who even are they?) can certainly get by with body-specific sunscreen on their faces, yes. However, anyone with skin sensitivities or concerns should err on the side of caution. Like regular moisturizer, body and facial sunscreen formulations differ due to the skin on the face being thinner, more delicate and more sensitive than that on the rest of the body. 

Great quality facial sunscreens are usually oil-free, lighter in texture and some even cater to different skin types such as dry, oily or combination. 

“Facial sunscreens are often easier to apply, less whitening and dry more elegantly,” explains David A. Mays, PharmD, MBA. “Some are also specifically formulated to be layered under makeup.”

To really reduce your chances of face breakouts, always choose a Top Allergen Free facial sunscreen because you’re guaranteed these are free of common allergens and irritants.

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7. How Often Should I Reapply Sunscreen? 

Applying sunscreen generously and often is imperative whether you have sensitive skin or not. For each application, the general rule of thumb is about ½ teaspoon for your face and a shot glass full for the rest of your body. That being said, everyone’s body is different, so if you’re confused, simply make sure you spread a thick, even layer over any skin that will be exposed. Do this 15 minutes before you go outside and if you think you may have skimped, apply another layer just to be sure. 

If you’re out in the sun all day, reapply every two hours to ensure you haven’t sweated or towel-dried your sunscreen clean away. Because physical sunscreen is formulated to sit on top of the skin, it tends to rub and/or sweat off more easily than chemical sunscreen, so you really must reapply after swimming, towel-drying or exercising outside.

8. Is Higher SPF Better for Sensitive Skin?

“Higher SPFs do not necessarily mean an increased risk for sensitive skin,” says James A. Yiannias, M.D.

“What you should be more concerned about are the active ingredients such as benzophenones, preservatives, and fragrances. It’s these that can cause skin sensitivities and allergies.”

In our opinion, a Top Free, broad-spectrum, physical sunscreen that’s water-resistant and has an SPF of somewhere between 30 and 50 is best. Yes, SPF 100 blocks 99 percent of UVB, but SPF 50, when applied properly, blocks 98 percent which is more than adequate. 

The problem with higher SPF formulations is the ratio of UVA protection often decreases, which puts your skin at more risk of premature aging and developing melanoma. According to the EWG (Environmental Working Group) high SPF products may suppress sunburn, but they offer far less protection from other types of sun damage. You have been warned.

If you’re not a fan of physical sunscreen and find your skin is fine with chemical sunscreen, be careful when you get to the higher SPF values as these contain higher concentrations of those aforementioned chemicals like benzophenones. In low concentrations, your skin may have coped perfectly well with such a cocktail of ingredients, but bombard it with more and you may trigger unwanted reactions. 

 Try:

9. Does Sunscreen Ever Expire? 

According to FDA (Food and Drug Administration) regulations, all sunscreens must have an expiration date unless strict testing by the manufacturer has proven that the product can remain stable for at least three years. Once a product passes this expiration there’s no guarantee it will still be effective.

So, what does that mean for you? Well, if your sunscreen has an expiration date, stick to it and discard the bottle as soon as it passes. If it has no expiration date, discard it after three years. 

“Also, throw away any product that’s separated and looks lumpy or clumpy. This means it will no longer spread evenly on your skin, creating areas on your skin where you’ll be less protected and may consequently burn,” advises David A. Mays, PharmD, MBA.

10. What’s The Best Way to Treat A Sunburn? 

Your best and safest best is to never burn your skin in the first place, but we get it, sometimes no matter how careful you are, accidents happen. So, here’s what the ADD (American Academy of Dermatology) recommends you do:

First, get out of the sun as soon as you notice your skin is looking red and take a cool bath or shower to help relieve the pain and heat. Dry yourself gently, leaving a little moisture on the surface of your skin, then apply an aloe vera-based moisturizer to help soothe and calm the redness. Drink lots of cool water and if your skin looks swollen or is giving you a significant amount of discomfort, try taking an aspirin or ibuprofen. 

“It is also critical to stay out of the sun for several days after a sunburn,” recommends James A. Yiannias, M.D.

“And if your sunburn is severe, always get it reviewed by a medical professional.” 

While your skin heals, wear loose comfortable clothing that’s made of tightly woven fabric to shade your skin from any further sun penetration. And finally, if your skin blisters, don’t pop them, simply allow them to heal.

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