It’s coming up to summer in our part of the world. With warm, sunny days, swimming and the beach. Even on work and school days we need to protect our skin from UV rays. A good quality SPF30+ (or more) sunscreen is top of the list. Broad spectrum and water resistant too. When you have sensitive skin, eczema or allergies, this can be challenging.
Our family has a history of problems with allergic reactions to chemical sunscreen ingredients. More than half of us have what I would call sensitive skin, and one has eczema along with multiple allergies. But choosing a sensitive skin sunscreen option has been harder than I thought.
The good news is we’ve found a few great options: read about our 3 favourites below.
- Not another list of sensitive skin sunscreens!
- Chemical sunscreen or mineral sunscreen?
- Sunscreen allergy
- Sensitivity to sunscreens can change
- Sensitive sunscreen for broken skin?
- Watch out for food ingredients
- The sensitive skin sunscreens we use
- Finding the right sensitive skin sunscreen for you
- References and more information
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Not another list of sensitive skin sunscreens!
There are a lot of reviews of sunscreens online. If you’ve ever searched for “sensitive skin sunscreen”, you’ve probably seen dozens of them listing the top 10 (or more). But have the authors actually tried them? On broken eczema skin? With food allergies?
A friend rang me this week to ask what we use, as her daughter just had a very bad reaction to a well known brand of chemical sunscreen. Sometimes people just need a personal recommendation. So I decided to post about our experiences and trying different sunscreens for someone with eczema and multiple allergies and what to look out for.
This is an honest, unbiased review of what we use. What works for us might not work for you, so always remember to do a patch test first before using any product.
Chemical sunscreen or mineral sunscreen?
Traditional sunscreens use chemical ingredients (like avobenzone or oxybenzone) to absorb and reflect UV rays. A lot of people prefer these sunscreens because they usually rub in well and don’t leave white residue on the skin.
Mineral sunscreens use mineral ingredients – like zinc oxide or titanium dioxide – to block and reflect UV rays from reaching your skin. If you’ve tried a mineral sunscreen, you probably know that they can tend to leave a chalky white residue on your skin, depending on the brand. (Although this can be a good thing with kids if you want to make sure you haven’t missed a spot!)
Neither type is better. It comes down to personal preference for most people. Using a sunscreen to protect your skin is the important thing, so you just need to find something that works for you.
People can react to sunscreen for a variety of reasons. The most common type of reaction to sunscreen is contact dermatitis. This might be caused by any of the ingredients, including UV absorbing chemicals, preservatives or even fragrances. It could be irritant contact dermatitis (which is common in people with sensitive skin and eczema). Or it could be allergic contact dermatitis, where someone is actually allergic to one of the sunscreen ingredients. A sunscreen allergy can cause a nasty blistering rash (I’ve seen this first hand).
Sunscreen allergy can happen suddenly (as soon as it’s applied) or can appear after sun exposure or even days later. It can also depend on other factors, like medication you are taking or other lotions or creams it comes into contact with.
People with sensitive skin, eczema and allergies can react to the commonly used ingredients in chemical sunscreens, which is why they often try the mineral alternatives. But people can react to ingredients in mineral products too. Just because it is “natural” doesn’t mean it is suitable for sensitive skin.
Sensitivity to sunscreens can change
Last year we headed away to a warmer part of the country for a week in winter. That’s when we had a “sunscreen crisis”. We were spending all day in the sunshine and staying at an apartment with a pool, so sunscreen was compulsory for all of us. The Hamilton Sensitive sunscreen we had been using for almost a decade suddenly was a problem. I’m not sure what changed. Perhaps it was because of drier eczema skin in the Winter? Maybe there was an ingredient change? Or the sensitivity just evolved over time (which it can). All I know was that it was hurting and causing red, painful skin (irritant contact dermatitis). And we needed something else, fast.
So I headed to the nearest discount pharmacy and read dozens and dozens of sunscreen labels looking for something suitable. I didn’t bother with the chemical sunscreens this time and went straight for the mineral sunscreens. That’s when I hit a snag. Nearly all of the zinc based sunscreens I picked up had some sort of ingredient or warning which made them unsuitable.
Sensitive sunscreen for broken skin?
Many of the mineral sunscreen labels I read that didn’t contain food ingredients contained the warning: “not to be used on broken skin“. That makes it difficult when you have eczema. If your skin is dry or you’ve been scratching, the skin barrier can be broken.
For us this ruled out the Invisible Zinc brand as you can see from the label:
Watch out for food ingredients
Obviously the minerals need some sort of moisturiser or emollient to help them spread evenly. But with multiple food allergies, I was struggling to find something that was suitable for broken skin but didn’t have a food allergen ingredient.
For example, have a look at this ingredient list for Wot Not Naturals 30 SPF Natural Sunscreen:
INGREDIENTS: Beeswax-white, candelilla wax, aloe barbadensis extract, d-alpha tocopheryl acetate (gmo-free vitamin e), grapeseed oil, safflower oil, sesame oil, shea butter, silica, water-purified, naticide. Active ingredient: zinc oxide (250mg/g)
We struck a major problem here. Severe sesame allergy! Interestingly, shea – while it is actually a type of tree nut – is not a significant allergen. (Read more in our post about shea and nut allergies).
Then there are the goats milk sunscreens: Goat Sunscreen, Gillygoat, Billie Goat. We couldn’t use these: milk allergy. Aveeno Positively Mineral Sunscreen contains oats. They may well be fine for some, but definitely not for others. And as we’ve posted about previously, using personal care products with food ingredients on sensitive/broken skin isn’t a great idea when you have food allergies or are at risk of developing them.
The sensitive skin sunscreens we use
We aren’t fussed about chemical versus mineral, as long as it doesn’t contain anything that causes a reaction.
After examining label after label, we settled on two mineral sunscreens for our family member with eczema and allergies. (It’s good to have two options. in case one is sold out, as I found out recently during a last minute shop before our beach holiday!)
Natural Instinct Natural Sunscreen
The first is zinc oxide based Natural Instinct Invisible Natural Sunscreen. It does leave a bit of a white cast, but this is minimal if you rub it in well. It can also tend to be runny, so you need to shake it really well before applying. The ingredients also do include food products (grape seed, shea, safflower, cucumber and green tea) so be aware of any food allergies. We’ve had no reactions to this one over the past 2 years. As a bonus, it isn’t tested on animals.
Natural Instinct Natural Sunscreen SPF30
UVA/UVB broad spectrum, 3 hour water resistant sunscreen.
Active ingredient: zinc oxide, 220mg/g.
Other Ingredients: Caprylic/Capric Triglyceride, Vitis Vinifera (Grape seed) Seed Oil, Silica, Butyrospermum Parkii (Shea) Butter, Aluminum Starch Octenylsuccinate , Euphorbia Cerifera Cera (Candelilla wax) , Cera Alba, Glyceryl Isostearate, Polyhydroxystearic acid, Simmondsia Chinensis (Jojoba) Seed Oil, Tocopherol (Vitamin E), Carthamus Tinctorius (Safflower) Seed Oil, Cucumis Sativus (Cucumber) Fruit Extract, Glycerin, Aqua, Camellia Sinensis Leaf (Green tea) Extract, Rosa Canina (Rosehip) Fruit Oil.
Ethical Zinc Natural Clear Zinc Sunscreen
The second, and probably my new favourite, is Ethical Zinc Natural Clear Zinc Sunscreen. This is also zinc based, but with the addition of beeswax as an ingredient it becomes much easier and less messy to apply. It dries clear and also has a lovely vanilla scent. Being SPF50+ means we don’t have to apply quite as often as the Natural Instincts. Australian made, Ethical Zinc is reef and ocean safe, made with 100% solar power and cruelty free, which makes it even more appealing. It does contain cococnut oil, so be aware of that if you have a coconut allergy.
Ethical Zinc Natural Clear Zinc Sunscreen
UVA/UVB broad spectrum, 4 hour water resistant and SPF50+ protection
Ingredients: Zinc Oxide, Medium Chain Triglycerides, White Beeswax, Coco-caprylate, Castor oil, Coconut oil, Polyglyceryl-3 Polyricinoleate, Isostearic Acid, D-alpha-tocopheryl Acetate, French Vanilla
You can buy Ethical Zinc from Amazon.
If you are in Australia, Catch.com.au also has Ethical Zinc Natural Clear Zinc Sunscreen at a really good price, with free shipping if you are a Club member.
Hamilton Sensitive SPF50+
For our other sensitive-skin family members (including me), we actually still use the Hamilton Sensitive, which is a chemical sunscreen. It’s effective, rubs in well and doesn’t cause any skin irritation for the rest of us.
Hamilton Sensitive SPF 50+
UVA/UVB broad spectrum, 4 hour water resistant.
Active Ingredients: 4-Methylbenzylidene Camphor 4%, Octyl Triazone 3%, Butyl Methoxydibenzoylmethane 4%, Octocrylene 4%
Preservatives: Phenoxyethanol, Benzyl Alcohol, Hydroxybenzoates
The sunscreens we use are all Australian brands, but companies like Amazon and Pharmacy Online deliver overseas too.
Finding the right sensitive skin sunscreen for you
There will be other brands of sensitive sunscreen that are suitable for different people and their particular allergies and sensitivities. Just be sure to carefully read the labels and avoid food ingredients if food allergies are a problem for you. And take notice of whether there is warning about using on broken skin if that applies.
Whichever sunscreen you try, always patch test first by applying a little on the inside of your forearm. It’s best if you can wait a few days before using the product all over just to be sure.
And unfortunately it might be a case of trial and error to find the right combination of a sunscreen that your sensitive skin can tolerate, but which you also like in terms of the feel and any white residue left behind.
References and more information
If you do have a reaction to your sunscreen, speak to your doctor about whether you should get a referral to a dermatologist or allergy specialist to work out the cause. You may need to have patch testing done to see which ingredients are causing the problem.
For more information about sunscreen allergy, we recommend reviewing the helpful information from:
Sunscreen is just one of many beauty and personal care products that might contain food ingredients, including common allergens. For some other products to be careful with, see our post on personal care products to check for food allergens.
If your skin also reacts to adhesive bandages or plasters, read about sensitive skin options and practical tips on how to manage allergy to adhesive bandages and tapes.
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