Sunscreen for Sensitive Skin - PIH Health

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Published on July 20, 2017

Sunscreen for Sensitive Skin

woman putting on sunscreen

woman putting on sunscreenAccording to the National Institutes of Health, sensitive skin is a complex dermatological condition defined by abnormal sensory symptoms. Simply put, sensitive skin reacts to EVERYTHING. Almost 45% of men and women in United States have sensitive or very sensitive skin.

Summer is a difficult time for those with sensitive skin. There’s a need to protect the skin against the sun’s negative UV radiation but what type of sunscreen will block the sun’s harmful rays without causing negative reactions to the skin? In order to answer this question, we need to understand the various components that make up sunscreens.

"Sunscreens have complex formulations and can cause a lot of trouble, especially for those with sensitive skin,” explains PIH Health Dermatologist Avanta P. Collier MD. "They can clog, irritate and cause allergies, which can lead to under-application, leaving skin vulnerable to UV damage, so it’s important to find the right sunscreen for you."

There are two types of sunscreens; those that have a physical barrier or mineral formula or those that work with chemical filter.

Physical sunscreens contain active mineral ingredients, such as titanium dioxide or zinc oxide, which work by sitting on top of the skin to deflect and scatter damaging UV rays away from the skin. They are often referred to as physical blockers.

Pros of physical sunscreens:

  • Offers protection against both UVA and UVB rays and is naturally broad spectrum
  • Protects from the sun as soon as it’s applied, no wait needed
  • Lasts longer when in direct UV light (but NOT when doing physical activities that cause the skin to get wet or sweat)
  • Less likely to cause a stinging irritation on the skin, making it better for sensitive skin
  • Better for those with heat-activated skin (like those with rosacea and redness) since it deflects the heat and energy given off by the sun away from the skin
  • Less likely to be pore-clogging, making it ideal for blemish-prone skin types
  • Has longer shelf life

Cons of physical sunscreens:

  • Can rub off, sweat off and rinse off easily, do more frequent reapplication is needed
  • May leave a white-ish cast on the skin, making some formulas incompatible for medium to dark skin tones
  • May be too chalky and opaque for daily use under makeup
  • Can create a thin film on the skin, which results in increased perspiration during physical activities and causes it to wear off more quickly
  • Can be thicker, which will require more effort to rub in
  • Can cause white drips to show on the skin when sweating
  • Can be less protective if not applied generously and accurately since UV light can get between the sunscreen molecules and get into the skin

Chemical sunscreens contain organic (carbon-based) compounds, such as oxybenzone, octinoxate, octisalate and avobenzone, which create a chemical reaction and work by changing UV rays into heat, then releasing that heat from the skin. They are often referred to as chemical or organic absorbers.

Pros of chemical sunscreens:

  • Tends to be thinner and, therefore, spreads more easily on the skin, making it more wearable for daily use
  • Less is needed to protect the skin because there is no risk of spaces between the sunscreen molecules after application
  • Formula is easier to add additional treatment ingredients, such as peptides and enzymes, which offer other skin benefits

Cons of chemical sunscreens:

  • Can possibly cause an increase in existing brown spots and discoloration due to a higher internal skin temperature
  • It takes about 20 minutes after application before it begins to work
  • Increased chance of irritation and stinging due to the multiple ingredients combined in order to achieve broad spectrum UVA and UVB protection
  • The higher the SPF (such as SPF 50 or greater), the higher the risk of irritation for sensitive skin types
  • The protection it offers gets used up more quickly when in direct UV light, so reapplication must be more frequent
  • Increased chance of redness for rosacea-prone skin types because it changes UV rays into heat which can exacerbate flushing
  • May clog the pores for oily skin types
  • Can cause stinging if it drips into the eyes from sweat

When it comes to sunscreen, it’s hard to say which one is truly the best for your skin since all formulas are not created equal. Be sure to check for compatibility by doing a patch test before using it all over your face and body.

The information in Healthy Living Online is for educational purposes only.  It is not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice.  The reader should always consult his or her healthcare provider to determine the appropriateness of the information for their own situation, or if they have any questions regarding a medical condition or treatment plan.

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