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!