Sense and Sensitivity: The ultimate guide to SPF for sensitive skin

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From physical to chemical, minerals to preservatives, find out all you need to know about choosing sun cream for sensitive skin

If sensitive skin is a tiresome affliction to live with on a daily basis, it's a complete nightmare when it comes to hot weather. Most of the summer holidays of my adult life have been near enough ruined by having to put up with sore, irritated and inflamed skin from the minute I step off the plane until days, sometimes even weeks after I return to the cooler UK.

It's taken years of covering up, hiding in the shade, tampering with awkward air conditioning systems and hundreds of prescribed antihistamines from my ever sympathetic doctor to realise that actually, the sun isn't to blame for my awful skin reactions abroad. I even had a sun allergy patch test to check. After my worst bout of what I thought was prickly heat in Croatia (high humidity and no aircon made that week particularly painful) I decided the beauty industry simply must have an answer and lo and behold, it did. The sun wasn't causing my skin to react - my sun screen was.

Types of sun cream: Physical vs Chemical

Sun screens and sun protection factors (SPF) generally work in one of two ways. Either they'll have a chemical filter, that acts a little like a sponge in that it absorbs the harmful UVA and UVB rays and converts them into infrared heat, or they'll act as a physical barrier, usually containing zinc oxide and titanium oxide, reflecting the rays away from the skin before they get a chance to do any damage (which is why they'll often leave white marks and not rub in so well, but formulas are now improving to be less chalky).

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As you'd expect, chemical filters tend to cause the most problems for sensitive skin (though 'natural' filters aren't always innocent, either). "People with sensitive skin should avoid these ingredients because they penetrate the dermis causing chemical reactions in a already compromised skin. The mast cells in the skin will release histamine, which will cause inflammation and irritation," says SP&Co's esthetician and skin specialist Sherron Holder-Culver.

This little piece of information was a revelation for me after years of trusting sun screens and thinking it was all the sun's fault that while my friends developed a sun kissed glow, I looked like Casper with shingles. It's simple really; I try to avoid chemicals and harsh ingredients in my daily beauty regime, so why should sun cream be any different?

Ingredients to avoid

So how do you know if it's chemical? As a general rule, most sunscreens are; they'll usually specifically say if it's non-chemical or a mineral formula, as it's certainly less common. However, as we know labelling is never that straightforward in sensitive skin land and so it helps to know your ingredients. Sherron reveals the common culprits:

"The ingredients to look out for are:

  • PABA( para-aminobenzoic acid), which is a para-aminobenzoate, a UVB protector. They will be listed as one of the following:
  • Amino benzoic acid, glyceryl amino benzoate, Ethyl-4-bis amino benzoate, Amyl dimethyl PABA, Glceryl PABA, Ethyl dihydroxypropyl PABA and Octyl dimethyl PABA (2-ethylhexyl dimethyl PABA).
  • Avoid salicylates, they are similar to aspirin; look out for Octyl salicylate (2-ethylhexyl salicylate), Homosalate (HMS or homomenthyl salicylate, and Triethanolamine salicylate.
  • Avoid cinnamates (anything ending in cinnamate).
  • Avoid Benzophenones, Avobenzone (Butyl methoxyl-dibenzoylmethane) or anything ending with benzophenone.

"Also look out for trade names such as: Any Eusolex with various numbers at the end, Helioplex, Meradimate, Parsol 1789, Sunzerse OT," explains Sherron.

Of course, it's not just the SPF that might be your problem - if you avoid fragrance, for example, in your skincare, then it's only natural that perfume-laden sunscreens will cause you problems. Cosmetic dermatologist Dr Sam Bunting explains, "Some people find that sunscreens irritate, and others develop dermatitis where they have applied them. Sometimes this is because of generally sensitive skin (irritant contact dermatitis); at other times it’s because of an allergic reaction to one of its components; this may be a fragrance, a preservative or a sunscreen chemical."

Ensure that you therefore always check for 'fragrance', 'parfum' and preservatives such as methylisothiazolinone (MI) which have been splashed in the news for their skin-damaging effects.

Natural ingredients to look for

The most widely used physical sunscreen filters are zinc oxide and titanium dioxide (technically still chemicals; micronised metal salts), but there are occasionally other ingredients used, as Sherron tells me:

"For sensitive skins I would recommend natural broad spectrum physical sun screens such as zinc oxide; this broad spectrum sun screen reflects both UVA and UVB rays, but it is not water resistant therefore I would recommend clients mix this formula with shea butter, which is a natural sun screen. It contains various healing properties such as vitamins A and E, and essential fatty acids to create a waterproof layer on the skin.
 
"Another miracle oil is moringa oil; it has approximately 46 anti-oxidants which will protect, feed and re-build sensitive skins plus it is also a natural sunscreen. Moringa oil contains over 72% of oleic acid which penetrates into the deeper layers of the skin, offering nutrients and moisture.
 
"Other natural sun screens are:

  • Retinyl palmitate, a form of vitamin A; besides its anti-ageing properties it also has a natural SPF of 20 and prevents sunburn.
  • Mulberry leaf extract
  • Vitamin E
  • Beta carotene is packed with anti-oxidants and natural photo-protective properties which protect the skin from sunburn, irritation and ageing."

The trouble is, it's not just a case of trusting a brand that has been gentle on your skin in the past; sun creams are a whole different ball game. Within one of my favourite sensitive skin-friendly brands, Avene, there are some sun creams in their sun care range that are still too much for my skin to handle (possibly due to fragrance, or due to the filter - either way we don't get on) and yet others are ideal for 'intolerant skin' like mine. Meanwhile, Sarah Brown, founder of organic and gentle brand Pai Skincare whose products I swear by, admits that they are yet to find an SPF solution that's both irritant-free and sticks to their organic ethos; therefore they don't yet sell one. Knowing your ingredients will help, but you should also do the standard patch test too.

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How to test sun cream

If you are trying a new sun cream, or indeed any new product, Dr Bunting recommends putting it to the test on a thin area of skin first. "A simple way to test out a new sunscreen if you’re prone to reactions is to do a patch test yourself on a discrete, protected area on the body – apply a small amount in an area like the bend of the arm for several days in a row, before applying it widely."

Of course, it's not always the sun cream that's at fault - you might simply be suffering from prickly heat (caused by a blockage of the sweat ducts) or even an allergy to the sun. Dr Bunting continues, "If simply changing the brand doesn't solve the problem, ask your doctor for advice. They can refer you to a dermatologist for patch tests and photopatch tests."

The best sun creams for sensitive skin

A couple of years ago I found my secret weapons that allowed me to enjoy the sun (sensibly) without even a hint of heat rash or reaction - it was the best holiday I'd had in years, which was even more shocking since it was my longest too. Aside from a tiny patch on my arm on the last day which, with the help of my calamine cream (see my beauty first aid kit here) disappeared in the space of 20 minutes, I was redness-free; a mere miracle in my eyes.

Click here to take a look at my top ten sun creams for sensitive skin - I trust each and every one with my (skin's) life. Test, test and test again to be sure... and then, happy holidays.

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