Choosing the right sunscreen is a core element of eczema care. Individuals with eczema often report itchiness, inflammation, and dry skin. Exposure to sunlight can further irritate skin with eczema, causing flare-ups. Thus, sunscreen can be a key component of eczema symptom management.
The National Eczema Association (NEA) notes that skin with eczema can be more susceptible to irritation caused by certain ingredients, such as fragrances. These irritants can be found in many products, including moisturizers, lotions, and sunscreens, making it complicated to choose. In some cases, using an irritating sunscreen can make skin with eczema more sensitive to sunlight. One MyEczemaTeam member noted that while on vacation, her face “flared up from the sunscreen” she used the day before.
It’s important to identify sunscreens that keep your skin healthy and protected while reducing side effects from over-the-counter products. Doing so can help manage eczema symptoms.
Let’s talk about why we use sunscreen. Ultraviolet (UV) rays from sunlight, although needed to maintain sufficiently high levels of vitamin D, can also induce cellular DNA damage, resulting in skin damage, sunburn, and even skin cancer. UV rays are often categorized as either UVA or UVB. UVA results in aging, and UVB results in sunburn. Sunscreens are used to protect the skin against the damaging effects of UV rays. Products offering broad-spectrum protection are ideal in that they protect against both UVA and UVB rays. The inflammation sparked by ultraviolet rays can irritate the skin. In the case of eczema, the skin is already irritated, so sunscreen can limit further damage.
When thinking about the ingredients found in common sunscreens, it’s best to start with the basics. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, the primary, or active, ingredients found in broad-spectrum sunscreens include:
These ingredients do the “heavy lifting” of sun protection, although there are often other inactive ingredients found in sunscreens.
Titanium dioxide and zinc oxide are used in mineral sunscreens, and they protect your skin by physically blocking and redirecting the UV rays found in sunlight. The other ingredients mentioned, such as oxybenzone, are used in chemical sunscreens and work by chemically soaking up UV rays and preventing them from hitting your skin.
The NEA recommends that individuals with eczema look for sunscreens containing titanium dioxide or zinc oxide as their active ingredient. These are often labeled as being for sensitive skin, and many of the sunscreens for babies contain zinc or titanium. Individuals can still experience symptom worsening from sunscreen products containing titanium dioxide or zinc oxide. However, these two ingredients tend to be less irritating to the skin as compared to ingredients like avobenzone, which chemically absorb UV rays. Therefore, it may be preferable to avoid ingredients that are chemical absorbers of UV light, such as oxybenzone and avobenzone.
Aside from the active ingredients found in sunscreen products, there are often other ingredients present in sunscreens. These ingredients can include fragrances and compounds that facilitate easier and more durable application of sunscreen, making them more cosmetically elegant. Similarly, many of the inactive ingredients found in sunscreen products can be irritating to the skin, particularly to skin with eczema that is already inflamed. In some cases, these ingredients can produce allergic reactions, which may make eczema symptoms worse.
Dermatologic organizations, including but not limited to the North American Contact Dermatitis Group and the American Contact Dermatitis Society, have published allergen panels listing frequent offenders that can elicit skin irritation. These irritants include fragrances, essential oils, lanolin, and propylene glycol, and they should be avoided in order to reduce irritation. For example, seeking out oil-free or fragrance-free sunscreen products may be beneficial, especially if you know that you are allergic to certain ingredients commonly found in skincare products. Finally, the NEA suggests that before you use a new sunscreen, you should test it to see if it effects your eczema symptoms. Apply a little bit of product to one small area of your skin and monitor it for any signs of inflammation or allergy — redness, itchiness, dryness, or pain.
The NEA awards a Seal of Acceptance to numerous products, including sunscreens, to inform the public of their safety and utility for individuals with eczema. To receive the Seal of Acceptance from the NEA, a sunscreen product must offer broad-spectrum UV protection, contain titanium dioxide or zinc oxide as its primary ingredient, be alcohol-free, and be classified as SPF (sun protection factor) 30 or greater. Selecting sunscreen products with the Seal of Acceptance may help optimize sunscreen protection while limiting irritation.
Here is a list of key problematic allergens:
Sun protection factor is a commonly used metric to assess the strength of sunscreen products. Specifically, SPF reflects the quantity of UVB radiation needed to induce sunburn, and lower values of SPF indicate reduced sun protection. SPF values can range from 15 to 100, and individuals with distinct skin types and sensitivities may benefit from different SPF strengths. Although SPF measures protection against UVB, most sunscreens and sunblocks are broad-spectrum blockers, so they are also effective against the UVA rays.
Individuals with highly sensitive skin, including those with eczema, may benefit from higher SPF levels, such as SPF 30 or SPF 50. The NEA recommends selecting sunscreens listed as SPF 30 or greater to maximize sun protection and reduce irritation. Sunscreen must be reapplied every two hours when outside in the sun to give continuous protection.
Eczema responds differently to various sunscreen products and ingredients. Talk with your dermatologist to help you decide what will be the safest and most effective sun protection. The following tips can also help you choose products:
MyEczemaTeam is the social network for people with eczema and their loved ones. On MyEczemaTeam, more than 36,000 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with eczema.
Are you living with eczema? Can you suggest a brand of sunscreen that works for you? Share your experience in the comments below, or start a conversation by posting on your Activities page.