In general, the most effective sunscreen is the one you'll actually use—and sensitive skin types, in particular, need to find a formula they'll enjoy putting on regularly. Why? When you have a highly reactive complexion, sunlight and heat tend to be triggers for irritation, says Marnie Nussbaum, MD, a dermatologist in New York City.
For the most delicate and temperamental skin types, it’s key to understand what's happening just below the surface so you can select the right product for you. “Sensitive skin can be caused by genetics, skin disorders like rosacea and eczema or a compromised skin barrier,” says board-certified dermatologist Dendy Engelman, MD. On that last one, she notes that a faulty skin barrier may allow ingredients to penetrate more deeply into the epidermis and can cause irritation. “Generally, someone with sensitive skin could be reactive to any added ingredient, like a fragrance or parabens,” she says. Sunscreens are no different: Certain formulas may contain ingredients that make the skin more reactive.
How to shop for sunscreen if you have sensitive skin
Before you start adding sunscreens to your cart, Dr. Nussbaum notes that regardless of your skin type, you should seek a sunscreen marketed as broad-spectrum, that has an SPF of 30 or above, and is water-resistant (perfect for when you’re swimming a few laps or sweating at your outdoor cycle class.) . “For those with sensitive skin, look for sunscreens that are mineral-based (meaning the active ingredients are zinc or titanium dioxide), paraben-free, fragrance-free, and hypoallergenic,” she explains.
What to avoid in a sunscreen if you have sensitive skin
You may want to pass on chemical sunscreen ingredients if your skin if finicky, says Dr. Engelman. Physical sunscreens sit on top of the skin and reflect the sun’s rays (think mineral SPFs with titanium dioxide and zinc oxide), whereas chemical sunscreens absorb the UV rays and then release them from the body. Chemical sunscreens are more likely to cause skin irritation since they contain carbon-based compounds, such as oxybenzone, octinoxate, octisalate, and avobenzone, she explains. "These compounds can cause skin irritations and allergic reactions that manifest as red, stinging, inflamed skin or a sunscreen allergic reaction, which may look like poison ivy,” adds Dr. Nussbaum.
What to look for in a sunscreen if you have sensitive skin
In addition to opting for mineral formulas, stick with clean sunscreens when you can. “Clean products are less likely to contain skin irritants in their formulas. However, beware of certain essential oils which can be in clean products and can also trigger skin irritation,” says Dr. Nussbaum. If your sensitive skin is also acne-prone, look for a sunscreen that’s non-comedogenic and oil-free. This way, “your pores will not get clogged, especially in the warmer temperatures, which trigger sebaceous gland secretions,” she adds.
Finally, if you have dry skin, your sunscreen should be a creamy formulation. Some lightweight sunscreens won't have as many hydrating properties, so choosing a thicker texture will keep your dry skin soothed and protected. Look for ingredients like shea butter, oils, esters, lipids, and fatty acids. “Emollients that contain a higher concentration of oils are often referred to as occlusive emollients since they help to form a protective barrier over the skin to lock in moisture. Other emollients are referred to as humectant emollients as they contain moisture that attracts moisture from the outside, like a magnet, into the skin. These include hyaluronic acid and glycerin,” says Dr. Nussbaum.
Clearly there's a lot to consider when shopping for sunscreen—especially if you need a formula that's suitable for sensitive skin. To help make the process easier, we asked dermatologists to help select their favorite formulas for sensitive skin.
Specially formulated for those with sensitive skin, this mineral sunscreen contains a filter that adds a thin layer to your skin to guard against harmful rays. Your skin won't feel greasy thanks to the fast-absorbing formula, which absorbs excess sebum to leave a smooth, powder-like finish.
If you love to spend days at the beach, the Countersun Mineral Sunscreen Lotion contains SPF 30. It's water-resistant and formulated with non-nano zinc, which shields UVA (it contributes to premature skin aging) and UVB (which plays the greatest role in causing skin cancer) rays.
Simple formulas are best for easily irritated skin. “For sensitive complexions, I recommend this non-comedogenic, fragrance-free mineral formulation,” Dr. Engelman says.
“I’m a fan of Skin Better’s Sunbetter SHEER SPF 56 Sunscreen Stick, which offers 100% mineral-active sun protection in a sheer stick that’s easy to throw in my bag. The formula glides on easily, and it’s water-resistant for 80 minutes,” Dr. Nussbaum says.
For oily skin, Dr. Engelman recommends Glo Skin Beauty’s Oil-free SPF 40. “It’s a combination of physical and chemical ingredients, so you are fully protected, plus it’s free of fragrances and parabens,” she says.
Mineral and clean sunscreens have a tendency to leave a white cast, making them less appealing for dark skin tones. Not this one. This formula was created by women of color specifically to be able to blend into dark skin tones. It's also packed with natural ingredients like avocado, jojoba, cacao, carrot juice, and sunflower oil, which won't irritate sensitive skin. Instead, each ingredient works to moisturize the skin while protecting it against sun damage.
“For dry skin, I love Elizabeth Arden’s Great 8 Daily defense Moisturizer Broad Spectrum Sunscreen SPF 35 because the gel formula is a moisturizer, SPF, and antioxidant serum all in one,” Dr. Engelman notes.
“For sensitive skin, I often recommend EltaMD UV Clear Broad-Spectrum SPF 46. It’s not only moisturizing due to hyaluronic acid, but it also offers broad-spectrum SPF coverage with transparent zinc (mineral-based but doesn’t leave the white residue) in addition to antioxidant protection thanks to niacinamide,” Dr. Nussbaum says.
According to Dr. Nussabum, Sun Bum’s Original SPF 50 Clear Zinc is an excellent selection for acne-prone skin. “It’s a mineral-based, physical sunscreen that uses zinc oxide and contains aloe and vitamin E, which provides a protective barrier between your face and the sun,” she says. The formula is also hypoallergenic, oil-free (so it won’t clog pores), and is water-resistant for up to 80-minutes.
This new formula is lightweight yet effective. Instead of using octinoxate, a chemical SPF ingredient, the formula uses zinc oxide, making it reef-safe. There is also hyaluronic acid to add hydrating benefits for dry, sensitive skin.
Have you ever applied sunscreen, but it feels like it never absorbs into your skin? Not this one. This SPF is fast-absorbing, so you won't have to worry about the application taking too much time. The formula is water- and sweat-resistant for 80 minutes. It hydrates the skin while protecting from the sun's harmful rays. You will also find sunflower extract that keeps the skin soothed and soft without irritating.
Looking for a multi-tasking sunscreen suited for sensitive skin? The Green Defense uses natural antioxidants: marigold and black chokeberry extract to fight against pollution and blue light from technology. Oh yeah, and there is titanium dioxide and zinc oxide to deflect UVA and UVB rays that cause skin cancer.
Get inspired by Venus Williams with this SPF. It’s a sheer mineral-based option formulated with 25% zinc oxide so that it protects all skin tones without leaving that pesky white cast.