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I’m pretty pale, live at a high elevation, and am acutely aware of the risks of skin cancer. Sunscreen is a no-brainer for me, but unfortunately, I have incredibly sensitive skin that doesn’t always get along with it. I’ve tried SO many different sunscreens, and with summer coming up, I wanted to compile a list of Girls Love Evidence tried-and-tested high SPF sunscreen for sensitive skin.
Yes, you need to wear sunscreen.
I will ALWAYS promote daily sunscreen use (nothing will terrify you like getting a degree in cancer biology ).
UV rays have the ability to mutate our tumor suppressor genes, change DNA integrity, alter cell homeostasis, and suppress the immune system. In the US alone, two people die of skin cancer every hour. On a more vain note, sun exposure is a major cause of photoaging (aka wrinkles, spots, and broken capillaries beneath the skin.)
I’m not saying we should freak out and avoid the sun at all costs, but seriously — with the amount of garbage wellness advice that circulates, you think people would put more effort into worrying about things that we actually know can cause a ton of harm to our bodies.
Last week on my Instagram, I posted a little infographic about the different types of sunscreen, and realized that I have tried like… everything for my sensitive skin.
I’ve dealt with eczema, psoriasis, rosacea, keratosis pilaris, folliculitis, and a whole bunch of other skin problems. My skin is dry, pale, and red, and I like to go outdoors, so I’ve tried a LOT of sunscreens, with some successes and some failures.
Anything that made this list…
- has an SPF higher than 30
- has UVA and UVB protection
- doesn’t have very strong fragrances or essential oils
- didn’t make me break out in a rash
There are definitely some winners and some losers on this list of high SPF sunscreen for sensitive skin— I wanted to also give my opinion on things I didn’t love, even if on paper they seem to be good for sensitive skin.
The difference between chemical and physical sunscreens
I’ll talk about chemical and physical sunscreens a bit here, so I wanted to throw in this definition.
Physical sunscreen: contains zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, which form a layer over the skin to block the sun
Chemical sunscreen: usually contains oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate, or octinoxate, they absorb the sun’s rays so they aren’t absorbed into the skin
The Master List: High SPF Sunscreen For Sensitive Skin
This has been my daily sunscreen for some time now. My dermatologist recommended this to me as it’s specifically made for people with redness as a skin concern, and while it’s a physical sunscreen, it doesn’t leave a layer of white on top of your skin.
Pros: Smooth under makeup. Not too thick. Doesn’t make me (more) pale.
Cons: Not water resistant, kind of expensive at $37 for 1.7 oz
Who it’s good for: Anyone layering under makeup, people in situations where you don’t sweat or swim
This is a really excellent sunscreen with the most amazing velvety feel on the skin. I have nothing bad to say about it, except that the price tag turned me off a little bit for repeat purchases.
Cost: $49 for 5.7 oz at Ulta
Pros: This feels AMAZING on my skin. Looks good under makeup. Water resistant.
Cons: Expensive, is a chemical sunscreen rather than physical (it claims to be reef-safe, but I know there are still some concerns about chemical sunscreen safety for wildlife).
Who it’s good for: People who want their skin to feel fancy
Pacifica Sun + Skincare Mineral SPF Bronzing Body Butter Crystal Shimmer SPF 50
I really wanted to like this one when I first bought it. I enjoy having a little bit of a “vacation glow”, and as a really pale, skin-cancer-averse person, I thought it might be better to get it all done in one go. I was very wrong.
Although it is zinc-oxide-based and didn’t irritate my sensitive skin, it was a nightmare. I put it on, let it dry for about 5 minutes, and then pulled on my swimsuit. Right away, I noticed that it had rubbed off a bit. After getting out of the pool later that day, I realized a ton of the color had transferred and had to wash my suit with dishwashing liquid to get it out.
After I showered and put on a robe, the color STILL transferred from my skin to the robe. I had to rub myself with a towel to get it off.
Cost: ~$14 at Ulta/Target, but I cannot link this one in good faith.
Pros: Gorgeous color and shimmer, no “white cast” from the zinc, smells good
Cons: Will stain literally everything it comes into contact with
Who it’s good for: Anyone planning on joining a nudist colony
Alba Botanica Wild Mint Clear Mineral Sunscreen SPF 45
Again, a brand I LOVE with a meh sunscreen. This stuff comes out chunky and has to be mixed. Once it’s on, the familiar zinc-white cast is pretty apparent. Not too bad if you’re working out or on a long hike, but not awesome to wear under makeup.
Cost: ~$10 at Sprouts or Whole Foods
Pros: Keeps me from getting burnt, doesn’t irritate my skin, and is water-resistant up to 80 minutes
Cons: Comes out of the bottle in chunks, makes you look like Casper
Who it’s good for: Anyone who doesn’t mind a bit of extra work and wants to avoid chemical sunscreens. If you’re ok with chemical sunscreens, the Alba Botanical Green Tea Hawaiian Sunscreen SPF 45 is a MUCH better formula.
La Roche-Posay Toleriane Double Repair Face Moisturizer UV SPF 30
I initially fell in love with La Roche-Posay products while living in France. I’ve never had any skin irritation from their products, they never have strong scents, and they always apply nicely. I always stock up on their products in France, because there are more effective UVA blockers available in the EU that haven’t been FDA approved.
Cost: $20 at Ulta
Pros: Goes on easily, doesn’t have a smell
Cons: At SPF 30, it’s a bit lower than some of the other sunscreens on this list. However, there might not be much of a difference between SPF 30 and 50, as long as it is applied correctly. Worth mentioning that it is a chemical sunscreen if that’s something you prefer to avoid.
Who it’s good for: Anyone who REALLY wants sun protection. While SPF 50 protects against 98% of UVB rays, SPF 100 protects against 99% of UVB rays. There’s not a huge difference. It is worth mentioning that a super similar formula exists in SPF 55 and is often a bit easier to find.
Pros: Goes on easily, doesn’t have a smell
Cons: In my experience, this can be a little greasy, and I have pretty dry skin. It is a chemical sunscreen if you’re trying to avoid that.
Who it’s good for: Anyone avoiding the ski mask sunburn. Since it’s a bit greasy, it tends to be my “mountain day” sunscreen, when I’m not planning on wearing much makeup and could afford a bit more moisture on my skin.
Cost: $36.99 at Ulta
Pros: SUPER light formulation means it’s good under makeup and doesn’t feel heavy.
Cons: A little bit greasy. Also, if you’re not paying attention (speaking from personal experience), it’s super easy to accidentally buy the tinted version.
Who it’s good for: Anyone who plans on looking good at the beach and might not be wanting to swim too much.
Other High SPF Sunscreens for Redness and Dry Skin
I know there are SO many more, and this is just a fraction of the sunscreens I’ve tried for my sensitive skin. I have a bunch more on my list to try, but please let me know if you’ve found a great match for your sensitive skin and I can add it to this list!