Finding products that play nicely with sensitive skin can be tricky, especially when you set your sights on reliable sun protection. You probably know there are some sunscreens you need to avoid—fragrance-laden lotions, creams with irritating active ingredients, and sprays that sap moisture—but the good news is that there are still plenty of options. We spoke with board-certified dermatologists about what makes a sunscreen good for sensitive skin and which products are worth a try.
What should you look for in a sunscreen that’s suitable for sensitive skin?
It’s not uncommon for people with sensitive skin to struggle with finding a sunscreen that’s both effective and non-irritating, Divya Shokeen, MD, a board-certified medical, surgical, cosmetic dermatologist, and founder of Ocean Skin & Vein Institute in Manhattan Beach, California, tells SELF. Paying close attention to a product’s ingredient list and formula can make your search a little easier.
Chemical sunscreens (which work by absorbing and dissipating the heat from the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays) contain active ingredients, like oxybenzone or octinoxate, that can be harsh on the skin, explains Dr. Shokeen. They may cause stinging, redness, and other signs of an allergic reaction, especially among people with certain skin conditions, including rosacea and eczema.
Alternatively, there are mineral sunscreens, which Dr. Shokeen recommends for sensitive skin. Also known as physical sunscreen, these products actually block UV rays from penetrating the skin when applied properly, as SELF previously reported. Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are the two most common active ingredients in mineral sunscreens and they’re considered non-irritating.
That said, you don’t have to count out all chemical options, if that’s your preferred type. Dr. Shokeen says it helps to look for products with the active ingredient avobenzone, which is generally gentler and less likely to irritate sensitive skin than oxybenzone or octinoxate.
Finally, watch out for added fragrance, Blair Murphy Rose, MD, a board-certified dermatologist at Laser & Skin Surgery Center of NY in New York City, tells SELF. Ingredients under the “fragrance” umbrella are common allergens or irritants that can cause or exacerbate a bad reaction to a new product, and they go by many names. While you can look for products that are “fragrance-free,” this labeling can sometimes be misleading. A “fragrance-free” product can get away with having ingredients like certain essential oils if they’re not defined as a scent, so make sure to scan the ingredients label carefully for potential irritants.
The formulation of a sunscreen can also contribute to how it affects your skin, says Dr. Rose. Specifically, she notes that sprays usually contain more alcohol than heavier products like lotions, which can make them more drying—and, in turn, potentially more irritating. Creams, especially ones that contain added moisturizing ingredients like oils, will feel gentler and more soothing on sensitive skin, according to Dr. Rose.
Even once you find a sunscreen that ticks these boxes and appeals to your personal preferences, it’s still a good idea to patch test it, Shari Sperling, DO, board-certified dermatologist and founder of Sperling Dermatology in Florham Park, New Jersey, tells SELF. Just rub a quarter-sized thin layer to the inside of your forearm, reapply at least once (follow the reapplication instructions on the product’s label), and watch for reactions like itching, swelling, inflammation, or a rash, which can indicate it’s not the right formula for you.
The best sunscreen for sensitive skin
With all that guidance in mind, we’ve selected the best sunscreens for sensitive skin, based on dermatologists’ recommendations and glowing reviews from SELF’s Healthy Beauty Award testers.