Sensitive to Sunscreen?
Dont get burned by the ingredients in your sun lotion
Nobody wants to look like a cordovan loafer. Especially in the close-ups. You grab a sunscreen with a decent SPF, slather away, reapply frequently, remembering the tender vee between clavicle and top button, and by summer’s end your skin is as soft and undamaged as a baby’s bottom. Piece of cake, right?
Maybe for some people. But for sensitive types allergic to the common ingredients in sunscreens, summer can be cruel. We don’t need the sun to feel the burn—or the itching, the scaling and the crusting. For some, the mere mention of PABA (Para-Amino Benzoic Acid) and problematic ingredients like oxybenzone and other benzophenomes are enough to cause a full-blown rash.
PABA is the cause of sunscreen-induced contact dermatitis in a shocking 97 percent of Americans tested with the condition by the Centers for Disease Control. It’s also associated with allergies, hormone disruption, cellular damage and low birth weight. This ubiquitous chemical is not so easy to avoid. It’s found in 600 brands of sunscreens.
Add to this the American Cancer Society’s report that one in four of us will be diagnosed with skin cancer this year—not to mention other unsightly problems like brown spots, wrinkling and the premature aging associated with unprotected sunning, plus the fact that thinning of the ozone layer, global warming and other atmospheric problems are intensifying the dangers of UVA and UVB rays. Suddenly, going to the beach is up there with running with scissors.
What’s a Bathing Beauty to Do?
Before you break out the biohazard suit, a little education goes a long way.
The Environmental Working Group suggests reading the fine print. If PABA is the culprit for you, look for a natural, hypoallergenic sunscreen that contains titanium oxide or zinc oxide.
These natural alternatives screen out dangerous ultraviolet rays by providing a physical barrier (new formulas keep you from looking like a Kabuki mask) rather than chemically absorbing them, which may be gentler on sensitive skin. Always choose a product with broad-spectrum coverage to protect your skin against UVB, the primary cause of sunburn and skin cancer, as well as UVA, which leads to premature aging and wrinkles.
SPF (sun protection factor) determines the level of protection. The lighter or fairer your skin, the higher the SPF you need. If you burn easily or have other risk factors for skin cancer (living in a high UV area, having a lot of moles, having two relatives with melanoma), consider an SPF of 30 the bare minimum. For everyone else, start with SPF 15 and stick with it or go higher, says Alexander Erlich, MD, associate professor of dermatology at the University of Pennsylvania.
SPF 15 deflects about 93 percent of UVB rays, allowing you to remain in the sun 15 times longer than you normally would before getting burned. Higher SPFs deflect about 97 percent of UVB rays.
Learn the difference between water-resistant and waterproof and err on the side of caution. This is especially important if you are swimming or playing a sport that works up a sweat. Water resistant sunscreen protects for 40 minutes while swimming or sweating; waterproof guards for up to 80. But that is under ideal circumstances, none of which pertain to real life. Reapply. Reapply. Reapply. At least every 20 to 30 minutes.
In fact, it’s best to apply sunscreen at least 30 minutes before you hit the beach. Smooth it on after your shower while your skin is still moist. This way, you can get to all those out-of-the-way places like feet, forehead, behind your knees and under bathing suit straps. Swimsuits have a way of shifting after a swim or a frisky game of frisbee. If you’ve ever experienced a bad burn on a sliver of tender skin, you know what I mean.
Type Casting is Good
If your skin is dry or if you have a condition like Sjogren’s Syndrome that zaps the skin of moisture, choose a cream or lotion to maximize moisture. For oily, breakout-prone skins, an oil-free sunscreen is the better choice. In fact, it’s wise to avoid oil formulas altogether as these sun products typically offer low or no sun protection and only increase the chances of trouble for sensitive skin. If you have rosacea or eczema, avoid any product that contains alcohol.
Don’t be a Tightwad
According to the Mayo Clinic, it takes an ounce of sunscreen, or two heaping tablespoons, to cover a standard-issue body. The average tube of sunscreen contains about 4 ounces—so do the math. I don’t know about you but my sunscreen usually lasts a lot longer than four applications. Being stingy doesn’t give good coverage.
Yes, sunscreens can be expensive, especially the all-natural, hypoallergenic varieties (why do products with no chemicals always cost more?). But when compared to pricey and painful procedures that reverse skin damage, they are a bargain at twice the price.
To save time and money, look for a hypoallergenic moisturizer with an SPF 15 sunscreen built right into the formula. And use it on a daily basis.
And while we’re on the subject of saving—check the expiration date on your sunscreen before you buy or plan to use it. Like cosmetic products, some ingredients may spoil over time and affect the efficacy of your sun protection. While this may not affect the general population, you can bet your sensitive you-know-what you’ll be the one to react.
Watch the Clock
The hours between 10:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. are peak sun-damage time. There’s much to be said for a wide-brimmed hat and the pleasure of lazing on a shady porch. I might add that nothing beats a picnic basket and a blanket spread under the protective canopy of an ancient tree —with the right person, of course. When all else fails, wear protective clothing. Not as romantic but definitely the ticket for bikes, hikes and other outdoor adventures.
Sunscreen is not something you save for a sunny day. When it’s overcast, 80 percent of the sun’s rays pass through the clouds. You may not feel the glare but your skin will sustain just as much damage. Apply sunscreen as liberally when it’s cloudy as you would when the sun is shining.
The Big Picture
Remember your skin is not your only sun-sensitive body part. Your lips are just as vulnerable to burning, sun damage and, yes, skin cancer as the rest of you. Some, but not all, lipsticks have built-in sunscreens. If yours doesn’t, or isn’t friendly to sensitive skin, find a good lip balm with an SPF of 15 or above and reapply frequently.
In addition, take good care of your eyes. Unprotected sun exposure can lead to cataracts and other vision problems. Make sure your sunglasses offer total protection from both UVA and UVB rays. This can be built right into the lenses or take the form of a coating applied to your favorite shades. If you buy sunglasses over the counter, be certain they’re tagged 100 percent UV protection.
Is It Possible to be Too Vigilant?
Yes. The dark side of too little sun is vitamin D deficiency. This can be serious, especially for those who don’t eat D-fortified foods, such as milk and wheat cereal.
Vitamin D is essential for proper absorption of calcium and other minerals vital to bone health, as well as the smooth working of the nervous system. Recent studies confirm this vitamin plays a crucial role in immune function and overall health. The best source of vitamin D, which the body stores in the fat cells against a rainy day, is exposure to direct sunlight (glass interferes with vitamin D absorption so forget about sitting in front of a sunny window).
Approximately 20 to 30 minutes daily exposure to bare skin (no sunscreen), preferably in the early morning or late afternoon when the ultraviolet rays are the weakest, will give most people a dose of D. But, of course, we’re not most people. Those of us with celiac disease and other absorption issues may have to resort to supplementation. Insist that your doctor check vitamin D levels as part of your routine blood work and consult with him or her about taking a D supplement.
Nurture not Nature
Skin has a remarkably long memory, especially for past sins. Dermatologist Alexander Erlich, a man whose own skin says he practices what he preaches, reports that, once upon a time, it took 20 or even 30 years for sun damage to show up as solar keratosis (unsightly benign brown spots) or actinic keratosis (typically pre-cancerous brown spots) or for rogue cells to gather into full-blown basal or squamous cell skin cancer. Basal and squamous skin cancers are 90 percent attributable to sun damage.
Thanks to the breakdown of the protective ozone layer, the damage time bomb goes off in about 15 years these days. That means it’s more important than ever to take good care of your sensitive skin—and to start early. Become familiar with your moles, imperfections and quirks and have a baseline skin exam to compare against any future developments.
“It’s also important to sort out whether a skin breakout is due to sunscreen sensitivity or to a photo-allergic reaction to the sun itself,” says Erlich. The latter, characterized by an itchy, stinging sensation, can be caused by certain medications. In addition, Erlich says some autoimmune conditions, such as lupus, can cause a toxic skin response from sun exposure.
We all know a peaches-and-cream beauty who never gets a freckle or a spot even into dotage. Chalk it up, not to good genes, but to good habits. We don’t get to undo the years of baby oil and iodine, sunburns that blistered and days spent baking by the pool. But we can make sure we don’t add insult to injury by using sunscreens that soothe, calm and make our sensitive skins positively glow with good health.
Put it this way. The only breakout you want to experience this summer is spontaneous applause when you unveil that healthy, vibrant, sunscreen-protected skin. LW