From physical and chemical filters to minerals and preservatives, here's all you need to know about choosing sun cream for sensitive skin types

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If  sensitive skin  is a tiresome affliction to live with on a daily basis, it's a complete nightmare when it comes to being in the sun. Most of the summer holidays of my adult life have been ruined by having to put up with sore, irritated and inflamed skin from the minute I step off the plane; but it's taken years of covering up, tampering with air conditioning and hundreds of prescribed antihistamines to realise that the sun isn't to blame for my awful skin reactions in the summer. I even had a sun allergy patch test to check. After my worst bout of what I thought was  prickly heat  in Croatia, I decided the beauty industry must have an answer and lo and behold, it did. The sun wasn't causing my skin to react - my sun screen was.

"Sunscreens are inherently complex formulations and can cause a lot of trouble, especially in those with sensitive skin,” explains Cosmetic Dermatologist Dr Sam Bunting. "They can clog, irritate, cause true allergy, cause allergy that specifically relates to sunscreen under the influence of the sun (photocontact dermatitis) not to mention be simply cosmetically unpleasing. All these things can lead to under-application, leaving skin vulnerable to UV damage, so it’s important to find the right one for you."

But when it comes to picking your perfect defence, it’s no good to choose a brand you know and hope for the best. You might be the metaphorical cheerleader for a skincare brand when it comes to your cleanser, moisturiser or even your whole routine, but unless you look closer at the ingredients they’ve put in to play, you can’t be sure you’re on the right team in terms of your ideal SPF. Here’s your guide to avoiding potential triggers for a skin reaction - or you can skip straight to my picks of the best sun creams for sensitive skin here. 

What's your filter? Physical vs Chemical

Sun screens generally work in one of two ways. Either they'll have a chemical filter, which acts 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 minerals such as 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 not rub in so well, but formulas are far more sophisticated than they used to be). Most sun creams contain either chemical or physical filters, but more and more brands are beginning to offer a combination of the two.

MORE GLOSS: How to stop prickly heat from ruining your summer

As you'd expect, chemical filters tend to cause the most problems for sensitive skin (though 'natural' filters aren't always innocent). "People with sensitive skin should avoid these ingredients because they penetrate the dermis causing chemical reactions in an 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.

While my friends developed a sun kissed glow, I looked like Casper with shingles

This little piece of information was a revelation for me after years of 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?

The chemicals 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. Oxybenzone and octinoxate are two of the most common chemical filters that I try to avoid (which incidentally have now been banned in Hawaii due to the damage they do to the coral reef ).

Sherron reveals the other common culprits that are worth avoiding:

  • 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 (including oxybenzone), 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.

The friendly filters

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."

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 antioxidants and natural photo-protective properties which protect the skin from sunburn, irritation and ageing.

While the dermatologists all recommend mineral sun screens for sensitive skin, however, many brands are opting for a healthy mix of the two. Ultrasun , for example, are my go-to brand for reaction-free SPF but they contain both physical and chemical filters, as MD Abi Cleeve explains to me:

"With physical filters the disadvantage can be that the skin is coated in a layer and very sensitive skin, especially when exposed to sun, can react. This we see in reactions such as prickly heat. Thick, physical filters often mean that the skin can’t cool naturally, so Ultrasun avoid a full physical barrier approach to formulating.

"With chemical filters, there is much in the press addressing chemicals we expose our systems to. The skin is of course a great carrier of product into our body - just look at the effectiveness of patches for nicotine or HRT. Knowing this, we have to be very careful with what we put on it. At Ultrasun we look for an optimal balance between the two, so we look at smaller particles of titanium and zinc that will physically stop the sun’s rays, combined with chemical absorbers in a quantity and a level that the skin can cope with."

It's not just a case of trusting a brand you use elsewhere in your routine; sun creams are a whole different ball game

Though I prefer mineral SPF as a rule, I’ve never had a reaction with Ultrasun’s formulas and find them the most reliable - which goes to show the importance of which filters are used, at what level, as well as which other ingredients manufacturers are putting into their bottles. Talking of which…

Irritating ingredients

The trouble with picking an SPF is, it's not just a case of trusting a brand you use elsewhere in your routine; sun creams are a whole different ball game. Within one of my favourite sensitive skin-friendly brands, Avene, there are sun creams in their range that are still too much for my skin to handle (possibly due to fragrance, or due to the filter) and yet others are ideal for 'intolerant skin' like mine. Meanwhile, Sarah Brown, founder of organic 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.

So, aside from filters, what do you need to look for? 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."

Ultrasun’s Abi Cleeve reveals the hidden horrors that are well worth avoiding:


"Perfumes have to be number one on the list; it is very difficult for the skin to cope with. To add perfume to your skin when you are already putting your skin under the attack of the sun’s UVA and UVB rays is something to be avoided at all costs. I would never suggest using a sunscreen that has perfume but I would also be very aware of actual perfume, fragranced body lotions, self-tans, pre-tan accelerators, other products that people often turn to in the sunshine. Use these at night rather than the day."

Mineral oils

"Minerals oils again have that effect of blocking, and therefore can exacerbate existing issues such as eczema and psoriasis, as well as increasing the likelihood of prickly heat."


"This is a form of preservative. There has been lots in the media as to whether we should or should not have parabens in our products; my honest opinion is that we should formulate without parabens wherever possible. If parabens are included we would hope that they are formulated within EU guidelines but the issue is, realistically how many products is that consumer really using? It could easily be 10, 11, 12 products a day. That sounds a lot but when you think about shower gel, cleanser, toner, shampoo, conditioner, body lotion, moisturiser, makeup, deodorant and perfume the exposure quota does increase quickly."

Methylisothiazolinone (MI)

Methylisothiazolinone  is another known skin irritant. There are alternatives that are far more modern that don’t cause reaction."

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."

If sun cream isn’t the issue, 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."

Either way, I’d recommend making a mineral (or mainly mineral) SPF your starting point if you know you have any kind of sensitivity. The best defence is a good offence, after all; Team Cautious all the way.

The best sun creams for sensitive skin

Click here to take a look at my recommended sun creams for sensitive skin , which I update regularly - 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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