How to Choose Sunscreen for Sensitive Skin

Choosing the right sunscreen for sensitive skin is vital in order to prevent flare ups for those with sensitive skin. Sensitive skin becomes easily irritated. Sunscreens are widely recommended by dermatologists to help protect skin from harmful UV rays. On store shelves, you may find numerous different brands of sunscreens. Typically, sunscreens may contain one or more active ingredients to block the sun's UV rays. They may also contain fragrances, preservatives, lanolin and other harsh ingredients that can cause irritation to sensitive skin, including contact allergic dermatitis. This is why it's strongly recommended to choose a gentle, yet effective sunscreen whether you have sensitive skin or not.

Why You Need Sunscreen

Basking in the sun feels wonderful, as it warms our body with infra-red light. The sun's rays also generate ultraviolet light that cannot be seen, but does get absorbed into our skin and can be harmful. There are two types of ultraviolet rays:

  • UVB - This has the shorter wavelength and only small amounts are needed on your skin to make Vitamin D. It's estimated you only need 5 minutes of midday summer sun in shorts and t-shirt without sunscreen to make the needed amount of Vitamin D (DermNet). Long exposure to UVB may cause sunburn and increase the risk of skin cancers.
  • UVA - The sun's rays from UVA have a longer wavelength, penetrates the skin and may cause burning as well as bring about premature aging and risk of skin cancers.
uva and uvb rays

Scientists used to report damage only with UVB and cancer, but now suspect UVA as well. UVA has also been called the aging rays, while UVB rays are the sun's burning rays. Using sunscreen is one important way to protect your skin from the harmful rays of the sun. Other measures are recommended for better protection, including wearing a hat and other sun protection clothing.

Sun protection factor (SPF) tells us how long we can be exposed to UVB before burning, versus using no sunscreen. For example, an SPF 15 would give us 150 minutes before we burn, while burning after 10 minutes without a sunscreen (150/10). The difference between sunscreen SPF 15 to one with SPF 30 or 50 and above, differs only by 3-4%. Dermatologists agree to get protection against UVB, up to SPF 30 is sufficient. What is more important is to limit exposure and apply the sunscreen frequently. To get protection from UVA, you need to look for a sunscreen that makes a statement on the label that it is "broad spectrum". To get protection for both UVA and UVB, choose a sunscreen that lists at least one of the following:

  • Titanium dioxide and zinc oxide - These two ingredients are called "physical blockers". The Food & Drug Administration (FDA) names them as the safest of sunblocks.
  • Chemical absorbers include avobenzone, ecamsule, bemotrizinol and bisoctrizole.

How to Choose the Right Sunscreen for Sensitive Skin

The best recommended ingredient for sun protection is zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. These two ingredients protect against both UVA and UVB. The following are a list of FDA allowable active ingredients in sunscreens, with any safety results summarized:

  • Padimate O - not supported by European Union (EU), may be delisted by FDA.
  • p-Aminobenzoic Acid (PABA) - shown to increase DNA defects.
  • Dioxybenzone - not tested for safety
  • Oxybenzone - not tested for safety

In 2009, a study by Center for Disease Control found the common UVA blocker oxybenzone in the urine of 2,500 people who regularly used sunscreens. Oxybenzone has been reported to have hormone-like activity and is not recommended by EWG. After testing 1,000 brands of sunscreen, EWG found many with potentially toxic ingredients, including oxybenzone.

  • Homosalate - not tested for safety
  • Menthyl Anthranilate - not tested for safety
  • Octocrylene - increases reactive oxygen in skin, advancing aging.
  • Octyl Salicylate - not tested for safety
  • Trolamine salicylate - not tested for safety
  • Zinc Oxide - protects skin against tumors in mice

How to Protect Yourself in Summer or Winter

Although broad spectrum sunblocks help protect your skin, it's recommended you use other measures as suggested below for maximum protection.

  • Keep sunscreen and lip balm with you at all time, in your care and purse.
  • Use a natural sunscreen preferably zinc oxide sunscreen.
  • Keep a broad-rimmed hat in your car and wear it during sun exposure, especially between the hours of 10 AM and 3 PM, when ultraviolet rays are strongest.
  • Lotion sunscreens are not water proof, but may be water resistant. Re-apply since they do wear off.
  • Children have sensitive, delicate skin and should especially be protected with proper clothing to cover sun exposed areas. Baby sunscreen brands are available.
  • Wear sunglasses to help prevent damage like cataracts or vision loss at older age.
  • Your lips also need sun cream. Protect your lips with natural lip balm with shea butter.
  • Apply sunscreen approximately 30 minutes before exposure.
  • Make sure to apply to face, hands, neck, ears, hands and arms.

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