When it comes to your skin, the sun has a lot to answer for. Fine lines, wrinkles, pigmentation and most seriously of all, the most common cancer in the US, skin cancer. Even if you don’t have sensitive skin, being aware of the sun and all of its repercussions is absolutely essential. After all, the sun is responsible for between 80 and 90 percent of all visible signs of external skin aging and, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, along with tanning beds, it’s the primary cause of skin cancer (1).
All this makes sun protection (and avoiding those dastardly tanning beds!) extremely important no matter your age, gender, skin color or skin type.
If you have some form of sensitive skin, however, crow’s feet and suspicious-looking moles aren’t the only things to worry about. The sun can serve up a whole bunch of further issues for sensitive skin to contend with like skin rashes, itching, breakouts and redness.
The truth is, knowing how to protect sensitive skin without causing irritation or exacerbating existing conditions requires due diligence and a great deal of skincare knowledge.
But first, what’s the deal with sensitive skin and the sun? Well, there are two important things to talk about here. First, there’s polymorphic light eruption (PMLE) which is a red, itchy rash that’s caused by UV exposure and indicates a true allergic reaction to the sun. Then there’s dermatitis and other types of sensitive skin issues that can be aggravated by the sun, and more specifically, the heat it emits.
"It can be hard for individuals to separate out a true allergy from having sensitive skin that becomes inflamed with heat,” explains James A. Yiannias, M.D., Mayo Clinic.
“Many times, patients will self-diagnose an allergy when, in fact, the actual diagnosis could be dermatitis that has simply become aggravated,” he adds. “The most important thing, therefore, is to pay a visit to your dermatologist to help discern the difference.”
PMLE can be hereditary but, similar to many chronic skin conditions, it’s often triggered by medications, fragrance or certain chemicals in your skincare products. This makes it extremely important to stay out of the midday sun and to protect your skin with gentle skin formulations whenever that’s not an option. Then again, this advice is the same for all types of sensitive skin.
So, how best to avoid PMLE, protect sensitive skin from heat irritation and shield it from damaging UV radiation? The good news is the solutions are pretty much the same for all, so herein are the simplest and most important ways to look after your skin in the sun.
1. Search For Shade
The obvious way to reduce your skin’s exposure to the sun is to not let it get to you. Literally. Of course staying inside, away from windows, all day every day is taking things a step too far, but remember, shade is your friend and full sunlight, the enemy.
When you’re in the shade, the temperature is exactly the same as in direct sunlight but you will feel around 10-15 degrees cooler because intense solar radiation is taken out of the equation. And if your skin reacts badly to the heat, this will be a big winner for you. Dense shade can also protect your from up to 15 percent of UV radiation which your skin will really thank you for both in the short- and long-term. It’s not full-proof, because UV rays can still reflect off surrounding surfaces, but it’s a great start.
Embrace shade by walking on the shady side of the street; parking in shady spots; picnicking under dense, leafy trees and investing in an umbrella to take to the beach.
Finally, remember, the most important time to seek shade is between 10 am and 2 pm when the sun’s rays are at their strongest.
2. Wear Sunscreen (But Not Just Any Sunscreen, Of Course)
To protect your skin from sunburn, premature aging and skin cancer you have to apply sunscreen all year long. This is vital in the summer when you’re likely to spend more time outside, but just as important in the spring, winter and fall when UV rays are still able to penetrate right through those clouds.
“Dermatologists recommend the use of a year-round sunscreen with at least an SPF of 30 or higher,” recommends David A. Mays, PharmD, MBA.
“Higher SPFs are extremely beneficial because the vast majority of people don’t apply the recommended amount at the optimal frequency.”
As you know, however, sunscreen can be tricky to nail if you have sensitive skin. Thick, chemical-laden formulations can clog your pores; highly fragranced products make your skin freak out, and alcohol-heavy sprays often cause dryness and peeling at lightning speeds. So, here are five important pointers to help you remain fully protected without irritating your skin…
A question on the top of a lot of people's minds is if they should be choosing chemical or physical sunscreens. Sunscreens are split into two different types: chemical and physical (aka mineral). Chemical sunscreens are formulated with ingredients like avobenzone, oxybenzone, octinoxate and octisalate which absorb UV rays, convert them into heat and then release this heat from your skin. Physical sunscreens, on the other hand, use active minerals like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide to physically block, deflect, absorb, and scatter UV radiation.
Both chemical and physical sunscreens have their pros and cons, but zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are far gentler on the skin and less likely to cause skin reactions, so physical sunscreen is often the smarter choice for sensitive skin. Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are also the only two sunscreen ingredients currently recognized as being both safe and effective by the FDA.
3. Avoid Sunscreens That Smell Amazing
One of the biggest skin-irritators in suncare, and in fact skincare as a whole, is fragrance.
“Fragrance tends to be in the top two classes of ingredients associated with allergies and irritation,” explains Dr. Mays.
Of course, not all fragrance molecules are bad for your skin, but most experts agree that the more enticing a skincare product smells, the worse it is for sensitive skin. And this includes natural fragrances as well as synthetic ones. Botanical ingredients like essential oils are top of the list of ingredients to avoid if you have sensitive skin because they’re extremely complex and contain many potentially unpredictable components. This means your favorite scented sunscreen, that evokes an immediate feeling of lying on a beach with a coconut cocktail in your hand, is probably not the best idea for your skin.
One small problem, folks. The term ‘fragrance-free’ has no legal definition nor FDA regulation which means many manufacturers cheat the system by hiding fragrant ingredients linalool or geraniol in their ingredients rather than calling out ‘fragrance’ or ‘parfum.’ So, how can you get around this? Simple: shop only for products that bear our SkinSAFE Fragrance Free marker. This is a guarantee that no fragrances – synthetic OR natural – have been added.
4. Use Products Specifically Formulated For Your Face
Lucky people with ‘normal’ skin can get away with applying body sunscreen on their faces, but sensitive skin is much more likely to experienced adverse reactions to heavier ingredients that might not necessarily be suited to the face. This is why facial sunscreens are the better choice.
The skin on your face is thinner, more fragile and often more irritated than your body which means that quality facial sunscreens are always the way to go. Choose those that are light, oil-free and specifically formulated for sensitive skin.
5. Shop 100 Percent Top Allergen Free
To significantly reduce irritation from the sun and your sunscreen, don’t settle for anything less than a 100 Percent Top Allergen Free formulation. This smart, SkinSAFE marker indicates that a product is guaranteed to be free of common allergens and irritants which is a great way to give yourself piece of mind when shopping for sunscreens for sensitive skin.
6. Throw Out The Old Stuff
“Sunscreens are considered ‘drugs’ by the FDA and as such require an expiration date,” explains Dr. Mays.
“This will be printed somewhere on the container and it’s important to stick to it. If your formulation is past its use-by date, ingredients can separate and the product will become less effective. Do yourself – and your skin – a favor and buy new.”
7. Make Wise Outfit Choices
Covering up with long-sleeved tops, loose pants and maxi skirts is an extremely easy way to ensure the sun stands no chance of hitting your skin. Darker clothes that are tightly woven are best and some clothing even includes UPF numbers as a useful guide.
Hats are also essential. But don’t be fooled that a baseball cap is your best choice. Of course, a cap is better than nothing, but it won’t protect the sides of your face or your neck which are both common areas for pigmentation issues and skin cancers (2). Stick with a wide-brimmed sunhat, coupled with sunglasses, instead.
8. Try Some Topical Vitamin C
Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant that helps ward off the skin-damaging effects of sun-induced free radicals. It also boosts collagen production and simultaneously inhibits melanin to help keep your skin strong, supple and radiant.
But that’s not all vitamin C has up its sleeve. Studies also show that, along with its antioxidant cousin, vitamin E, topical vitamin C has photoprotective properties that can offer your skin more protection than sunscreen alone (3). Great news, granted, but is vitamin C suitable for sensitive skin types?
“In general, vitamin C is well tolerated by patients with sensitive skin and it’s been shown to protect against some of the damaging effects of UV radiation,” says David.
The purest and most effective form of topical vitamin C is l-ascorbic acid, but this must be formulated at a very low, acidic pH for it to remain stable which can be very irritating for sensitive skin. So, what’s the answer? Look for a gentler vitamin C derivative like sodium ascorbyl phosphate or magnesium ascorbyl phosphate and introduce it slowly into your skincare regime (once or twice a week to begin with) so your skin has to time to acclimate. Just be mindful that vitamin C is great when used in conjunction with SPF but it’s NOT sunscreen and doesn’t provide the protection you will get from a broad-spectrum SPF product.
9. Be Wary Of Edible Sun Protection
From gummies to supplements, ingestible sun protection has become a real thing.
“Supplements have become part of a lot of people's self-care journey. Most are chocked full of antioxidants and some contain Vitamin D as well,” says Dr. Mays.
“However, while they can be supportive, the use of oral supplements are not a replacement for safe sun behaviors like sunscreen, sun-protective clothing, and of course avoiding direct UV rays during the peak of the day,” he adds.
Just because applying sunscreen can be a bit of a chore and sometimes makes your skin breakout, you should not give it up completely and replace it with edible gummies. Being prudent in the sun and protecting yourself with clothing, dense shade and broad-spectrum 100 Percent Top Allergen Free sunscreen are way more important.
“These companies are putting people’s health at risk by giving consumers a false sense of security that a dietary supplement could prevent sunburn, reduce early skin aging caused by the skin, or protect from the risks of skin cancer,” explains FDA Commissioner, Scott Gottlieb, M. D. (4).
“No pill or capsule can replace your sunscreen,” he adds.