If choosing a sunscreen this day in age isn't complicated enough, choosing a sunscreen feels impossible when you have sensitive skin. Not only are there a million different formulas for every body part, finish, and level of SPF, but there's also the whole chemical-versus-physical debate. Daunting. Especially since everyone defines "sensitive" differently.
"As a dermatologist, it becomes tricky to tease out what people mean when they tell us they have sensitive skin," explains Anna Guanche, MD, a board-certified dermatologist at the Bella Skin Institute in Calabasas, California. "People often self-assign themselves as 'sensitive,' which can mean they break out easily, have allergic reactions, have 'thin skin,' or are especially prone to flushing or pigmentation when they apply certain products."
That said, true sensitive skin—as defined by dermatologists—is usually related to an underlying condition such as eczema (approximately 10% of the population has it) or rosacea.
"Many people think they have sensitive skin, but they are actually sensitized by the overuse of aggressive products," adds Suneel Chilukuri, MD, of Refresh Dermatology in Houston. "Either way, those with a genetic predisposition or those with external causes have a skin barrier that isn't functioning properly. In these patients, we want to repair the skin barrier while using products aren't going to further damage their epidermal barrier."
So back to the sunscreen debate. Bearing all the above in mind, dermatologists typically recommend opting for mineral (also known as physical) sunscreen formulas versus chemical ones, as sensitive skin is more reactionary when it comes to potentially irritating ingredients. Mineral formulas usually have fewer ingredients, and their trademark sun blockers—namely, zinc oxide and titanium dioxide—are less inflammatory than avobenzone or oxybenzone, both of which are found in chemical sunscreens.
Curious to know more? We asked three leading dermatologists for the specific sunscreen formulas they recommend on their clients with sensitive skin. Keep scrolling for their nine expert picks!
"Look for sunscreens with titanium dioxide and/or zinc oxide, which are the mineral ingredients," explains Ted Lain, MD, chief medical officer at Sanova Dermatology in Austin, Texas. This one from all-star drugstore brand CeraVe is one of his top suggestions if you're looking for a formula that will play nicely with sensitive skin without breaking the bank.
"Try your best to avoid chemical blockers such as avobenzone or oxybenzone, as well as any of the other chemicals commonly used," Lain warns. "Also, avoid added fragrance and propylene glycol—a common preservative that may cause irritation." He cites Aveeno's mineral SPF as one of the better options on the market.
French drugstore brand La Roche-Posay is known for its top-rated sunscreen formulations. "In addition to using a mineral sunscreen to help protect sensitive skin, try focusing on ingredients and products that can maintain or repair the barrier function of the skin, such as hyaluronic acid, glycerin, and ceramides," suggests Lain. "Try using a gentle skin cleanser (often called lipid-free cleanser) to avoid stripping the skin of its own important fats and ceramides."
"Interestingly, a sensitive skin–geared formula may sometimes be a blend with chemical and physical sunscreen ingredients," Guanche says. "Chemical ingredients like octocrylene or octinoxate are found in sensitive-skin sunscreens like this one from Avène. This formulation is great for those with a red complexion, is hypoallergenic, and won't clog pores. Plus it contains thermal spring water to aid in skin-barrier repair."
"This sunscreen for sensitive features broad-spectrum UVA/UVB protection and is water-resistant, non-greasy, hypoallergenic, reef-friendly, and free of parabens, gluten, PABAs, and oil," advises Guanche. "Sun Bum also makes a great sunscreen stick (sold here!) for the face with primarily physical blockers."
"PCA Skin's Sheer Tint formula is a great choice because it's a mineral formula with the addition of antioxidant protection," Chilukuri explains to us. "This particular sunscreen works great for all skin tones, and doesn't leave behind a white or ashy cast."
"Another favorite is Senté's Invisible Shield Full Physical formula, which contains only physical sunblock agents," Chilukuri adds. "Both this sunscreen and the one from PCA Skin are unique in that they can be applied directly after most in-office procedures, such as chemical peels and most lasers."
"For patients with melasma, I often recommend SkinMedica's Total Defense + Repair SPF 34, which also provides protection against infrared light in addition to ultraviolet light," Chilukuri tells us. It also contains antioxidants and skin-repair agents, in addition to blocking certain aspects of the melanin-producing pathway.
"Even if the conditions are humid and hot, moisturizer is still a must for all skin types—especially for those with sensitive skin," Cilukuri explains. "The goal of board-certified dermatologists is to repair the skin barrier to prevent transepidermal water loss, and I almost always recommend PCA Skin's B3 Brightening Serum, which contains the highest level of niacinamide to repair the skin barrier and to decrease inflammation."
Surprise! Even though aloe vera has long been touted as the ultimate after-sun skincare savior, Chilukuri doesn't recommend it for those with sensitive skin. "If you do experience a sunburn, consider visiting your board-certified dermatologist to see if you should start a topical steroid cream or an oral nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medication such as ibuprofen or naproxen. In general, I recommend avoiding aloe vera for sunburns, as this is often an irritating agent for those with sensitive skin."
3. Always Wear Sun-Protective Clothing and Accessories
All three dermatologists we talked to mentioned that wearing sun-protective clothing, hats, and the like is a must for people with sensitive skin. Don't just protect your face! Guanche recommends the brand Coolibar, in particular, which makes UV-blocking clothing.