Sunblock for sensitive skin

Some sunblocks contain ingredients that cause difficulties for those people looking for a sunblock for sensitive skin. The ever growing sunblock business has taken these sensitivity factors into account. Most sunblocks claiming to have been created especially for those with sensitive skins, use the natural physical sunblocks of zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, instead of the irritating or toxic chemical options.

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Sensitivity symptoms

There are so many different negative reactions reported by various people after using sunblocks. Some people's faces swell up, some sting, some eyes swell and itch. Many people have a problem with spots or pimples - some immediately, some the next day.

Apparently, intolerance to sunscreens is quite common, where a face or neck full of spots is the most adverse symptom or reaction, although stinging eyes is really irritating, especially if doing something like cycling or performing athletically! According to Dr Lesley Baumann, who is a dermatologist and the CEO of Baumann Cosmetic and Research Center, the stinging and rashes typically occur upon contact with the lotion, but in some cases, will not happen until you are actually exposed to the sun.

For many, the prescribed sunblock for sensitive skin is a thick, greasy lotion that actually triggers an acne breakout or at the very least makes you feel uncomfortable and looking like a ghost!

Dermatologist Dr Heather Woolery-Lloyd believes that true sunblock allergies are rare, but can occur. "Irritation from sunscreen such as mild stinging around the eyes that subsides quickly is likely just an irritant reaction and not a true allergy. If you have significant redness, itching, bumps, or patches and it does not subside then you may be truly allergic."

What to avoid in a sunblock for sensitive skin

  • Skin pore blocking formulas. If breakouts of pimples are the typical problem, a "noncomedogenic" labelled sunblock is designed to not clog your pores.
  • Avoid avobenzone altogether, also known as Parsol 1789. One of the most commonly used chemical ingredients is avobenzone, so it becomes quite a task. Apparently it is known to sting people.
  • "Methoxycinnamate makes many people, including myself, get a rash upon sun exposure," explains Dr. Baumann. "This is called a photoallergic reaction because it only happens when you go in the sun."
  • Chemical sun blockers, such as Oxybenzone (or Benzophenone-3), is one of the most common sunblock ingredients that aggravates the skin and is used widely in formulas. It is a hazardous chemical which is absorbed into the skin that research by the Center for Disease Control estimate 97% of Americans are contaminated with.
  • Fragrances, dyes, fragrances and alcohol might cause allergic reactions in some, such as spots or rashes.
  • Toxic chemical sunscreens such as para-aminobenzoic acid (PABA), dioxybenzone, oxybenzone, or sulisobenzone cause skin allergy reactions in many people.
  • Benzophenones can also cause allergic reactions.

What to look for in a sunblock for sensitive skin

Choosing a sunblock for sensitive skin isn't as simple as one would like it to be. Especially as there is a whole new generation of sunblocks coming onto the market, designed to offer fuller protection against both UVA and UVB rays. Given all the new options, how do you know which is the best sunblock for you and your specific needs?

  • The minerals titanium dioxide and zinc oxide (the physical sunblocks that sit on top of your skin instead of being absorbed into it) are less sensitizing and deflect both the UVA and UVB rays. "As a general rule, zinc is lighter under makeup, so it's better for everyday wear, and titanium has stronger photo protection for beach days," says Zoe Draelos, M.D., a dermatologist in High Point, NC, USA.
  • Anything labelled hypoallergenic and fragrance-free will help a sensitive skin.
  • Specific skin conditions like rosacea may also benefit from using a sunblock created especially for sensitive skin or those designed for children. Typically these are all made using either zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide only, without any other chemical sunscreen ingredients.
  • If you're acne-prone or oily, your skin may be highly reactive to sunblocks. Some physical sunblocks have textures that can be too heavy or sticky. There are light oil based lotions available though as a possible alternative. An example is coconut oil, which is easily absorbed by the skin. Look for "caprylic capric triglyceride" on the ingredient list.
  • If you've got dry skin, choose a lotion or cream with added hydrating ingredients like aloe. You will want to avoid sprays and gels that are typically laden with alcohol as well, as you'll more than likely feel their drying effects quite quickly.
  • Swimmers and outdoor-sports enthusiasts require a "water-resistant" or "very water-resistant" sunscreen, meaning it binds to wet skin for up to 40 minutes or 80 minutes, respectively, often due to stickier silicones or polymers. These formulas will also stay put on sweaty skin, making them good for heavy exercisers, but sometimes may induce an allergic reaction.

Broad spectrum sunblock for sensitive skin

So which is the best sunblock for your sensitive skin needs? The predominant message coming at us from many quarters seems to be saying to go for a physical sunscreen of zinc oxide or titanium dioxide when looking for a sunblock for sensitive skin. Plus, a broad-spectrum protection is a must and these two sunscreen ingredients provide the best protection for both UVB and UVA rays.

A few years ago, choosing a good sunblock meant you just looked for a high sun protection factor (SPF), which rates how well the sunscreen protects you against ultraviolet B (UVB) rays only. Research soon showed that ultraviolet A rays (UVA) also increase skin cancer risk. While UVA rays don't cause sunburn, they penetrate far deeper into the skin layers and cause not only wrinkles, but UVA damage and potentially skin cancer.


Ingredients with broad-spectrum protection capabilities include the chemicals oxybenzone (benzophenone) and avobenzone (Parsol 1789). However, for those with sensitivities there are too many reports of reactions after using them, so the best bet is to stay with the 2 physical sunblocks of zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. Old sunblock formulas with titanium dioxide or zinc oxide used to make people look pale and ghostly, but newer manufacturing or mixing techniques have resolved this problem.

Avobenzone can be used if stabilized. eg. Neutrogena's Helioplex uses a "stabilized" version of avobenzone (or Parsol 1789). Unless it's stabilized, avobenzone breaks down when exposed to sunlight, which of course is exactly what you don't want in a sunscreen. Stabilized avobenzone is becoming more and more commonly used now. The trick then is to look for other toxic ingredients that may compromise the formula and cause a reaction.

References for sunblock for sensitive skin

Dr Lesley Baumann
Dr Heather Woolery

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