“Sunscreen for sensitive skin” is why your sensitive skin is irritated | 5 criteria for correct sunscreen selection

asian woman wiping forehead sweat at beach Sensitive skin

“My skin turns red whenever I use sunscreen.”

“My skin burns and tingles with any kind of sunscreen.”

“I can’t find a sunscreen that matches my skin.”

These are some of the many concerns that people with sensitive skin have.

The biggest cause of these concerns is… you’re using sunscreen for sensitive skin.

Believe it or not, sunscreen for sensitive skin is not actually suitable for sensitive skin. Below is a list of characteristics that sunscreens for sensitive skin typically have, but are not good for sensitive skin.

“Sunscreens for sensitive skin” that aren’t good for sensitive skin

  • Sunscreens over SPF 30
  • Sunscreens containing UV absorbers
  • Sunscreens that aren’t waterproof
  • Gel or lotion-type sunscreens
  • Sunscreens that don’t have trial sets

Do any of these characteristics apply to the sunscreens you’ve been using?

The cosmetics industry has no clear definition for the term “for sensitive skin.” If the company decides that their product is “for sensitive skin” then it is accepted as that.

In reality, we have no idea whether that product is actually safe for sensitive skin.

Of course, there are many sunscreens that have been tested and created specifically for sensitive skin. But there is an equal amount of sunscreens that are labeled as “for sensitive skin,” and yet contain harmful ingredients for sensitive skin.

Based on our certified skincare advisor’s own research, we introduce the 5 CRITERIA for choosing a sunscreen that is actually safe to use on sensitive skin.

By choosing your sunscreen based on these 5 criteria, you’ll be able to prevent sunburns, redness, and itchiness caused by UV rays, as well as age spots, wrinkles, and saggy skin.

Must-read for people with sensitive skin! 5 criteria for choosing the right sunscreen

Choose a sunscreen with SPF 20~30 to avoid redness and tingling

The sunblocking effects of a sunscreen are measured by an SPF index.

What is SPF?

SPF is an index that measures the effectiveness of preventing UVB rays, which darken the skin. A value from 1~50+ is given to indicate how much UV damage is reduced, compared to when no sunscreen is applied at all.

Whether you’re buying sunscreen online or in stores, the first thing you should check is its SPF index.

Choose a sunscreen that has SPF 20~30.

This is because SPF 20~30 is the happy medium where your skin is protected from 1) damage from UV rays and 2 ) damage from UV-blocking ingredients.

Sunscreens with SPF 20~30 protect your skin from UV rays while also minimizing irritation to your skin.

The harsh truth: Sunscreens with over SPF 30 have no changes in UV-blocking effects

“The higher the SPF index, the better the UV-blocking effects are.”

Generally speaking, many people believe the above statement. Unfortunately, this is a misconception.

shiseido data graph spf % uv blockage

The graph above depicts the effectiveness of sunscreen at each SPF index value. This study was conducted by Shiseido.

  • SPF 15: cut roughly 93% of UV rays
  • SPF 30: cut roughly 96.7%
  • SPF 50: cut roughly 98%

As you can see, the difference between SPF 30 and SPF 50 is 1.3%.

Whether this is a large difference or a small one, that’s up to the person. But unless you have extremely irritated skin, this difference is virtually zero.

In other words, as long as your sunscreen has SPF 30, it can effectively block UV rays.

Plus, sunscreens with over SPF 30 cause bigger problems for your skin.

The higher the SPF index value, the greater the damage to your sensitive skin

The higher the SPF index value, the greater the damage to your skin.

In general, a UV-blocking ingredient called UV absorbing agents are added in sunscreens to increase the SPF index value. Increasing the SPF index value is as simple as that: just add more UV absorbers.

The problem with this is lies in how UV absorbers block UV rays.

When UV absorbers block UV rays, it converts UV rays into heat through a chemical reaction. This chemical reaction irritates and burdens your skin, especially sensitive skin.

uv absorbers chemical reaction skin irritation

When sensitive skin becomes irritated by this chemical reaction, the following symptoms may occur:

“Sunscreen for sensitive skin” that isn’t good for sensitive skin

  • Inflammation
  • Redness
  • Rashes and bumps
  • Tight skin
  • Dry skin
  • Swelling

When I listen to the experiences of people with sensitive skin, there are many instances where their symptoms were not actually from sunburn, but from imflammation caused by UV absorbers.

In other words… Sunscreen, which is supposed to protect your skin, may actually be doing the opposite. 

For those of you with sensitive skin, it’s especially important to choose an SPF 20~30 sunscreen.

Choose a sunscreen with 100% UV scattering agents to avoid redness and tingling

best sunscreen scattering agents 100% only

Aside from UV absorbing agents, you should also pay attention to UV scattering agents.

You should choose a suncreen that ONLY contains UV scattering agents. Here’s why.

UV scattering agents cause less irritation on sensitive skin

There are 2 types of UV-blocking ingredients: UV absorbing agents and UV scattering agents.

Sunscreens obtain their UV-blocking properties through one or a mix of these agents. 

UV scattering agents are not only very effective, but also cause minimal irritation on sensitive skin.

Let’s look at sunscreens with SPF 50, for example.

As we explained in the previous section, the SPF index value increases when you add UV absorbers.

Because UV absorbers are easy to process, they are used in many cosmetic products other than sunscreen for your face.

However, as we explained, UV absorbing agents greatly burden your sensitive skin.

On the other hand, UV scattering agents block UV rays by reflecting them. It doesn’t cause a chemical reaction so it’s much safer for your skin.

Although UV scattering agents are more likely to cause white cast and are powdery, it’s safety is a big plus point.

In fact, UV scattering agents are the perfect UV-blocking ingredient for sensitive skin.

Recently, sunscreens with UV scattering agents have been known as “nonchemical sunscreens” due to the fact that they don’t cause a chemical reaction.

However, not all “nonchemical sunscreens” are safe. This is because there are many “nonchemical sunscreens” that contain UV absorbers.

table characteristics and effects on sensitive skin sunscreen uv absorbers uv scattering agents

That’s why it’s important to check the ingredients list of your sunscreen and choose one that only contains 100% UV scattering agents.

Here’s how you can check.

How to find a sunscreen with 100% UV scattering agents

1. Check that the sunscreen contains no UV absorbers

Check whether UV absorbers are mentioned toward the beginning of the ingredients list. The most common ones include:

  • Oxybenzone (benzophenone)
  • Avobenzone
  • Octinoxate (octyl methoxycinnamate)
  • Octisalate (octylsalicylate)
  • Homosalate
  • Octocrylene

2. Check that the sunscreen contains UV scattering agents

If “scattering agents” are not listed, check for the following ingredients:

  • Titanium dioxide
  • Zinc oxide

Just by checking the ingredients list, and choosing a sunscreen that ONLY contains UV scattering agents, you can avoid redness and irritation to your sensitive skin when using sunscreen.

table uv-blocking ingredients characteristics effects on sensitive skin names

Choose a waterproof sunscreen to avoid redness and tingling

Sunscreens that easily come off CANNOT sufficiently protect your skin from UV rays.

That’s why it’s important to choose a waterproof sunscreen.

However, there are certain criteria for waterproof sunscreens too. If it requires heavy scrubbing and strong cleansers to remove it, it will only irritate your sensitive skin more.

When choosing a waterproof sunscreen, you should think about the following 2 criteria:

  • It doesn’t require a special cleanser to remove it
  • It comes off after washing your face once

With these 2 criteria, you’ll be able to find a waterproof sunscreen that protects your skin from sun damage but also keeps skin irritation to a minimum.

Non-waterproof sunscreens cannot protect your skin

For sensitive skin, a sunscreen that easily comes off is a benefit. Sunscreens that need to be scrubbed off or require strong cleansers only burdens the skin more.

That’s why easy-to-remove sunscreens are quite popular among people with sensitive skin.

However, sunscreens that easily come off don’t have waterproof properties. This is a huge problem.

Here is a side-by-side comparison of what happens when you use waterproof sunscreen vs. when you don’t.

waterproof sunscreen non waterproof sunscreen difference

As you can see, the non-waterproof sunscreen washed off immediately. This defeats the whole purpose of using sunscreen.

In the picture above, we sprayed water on both hands.

In reality, our skin produces not only water (such as sweat), but also oil (such as sebum). Sunscreens are oil-based so it blends well and is more easily removed when it mixes with other oils.

Especially for sensitive skin, which is more vulnerable to sun damage, waterproof sunscreens are essential.

Sunscreen comes off with sebum – more than you can imagine

From time to time, I receive comments saying, “I don’t have oily skin so sunscreen won’t come off with sebum.”

In reality, our body produces sebum regularly throughout the day.

Even if you don’t have oily skin, you may have experienced your makeup fading or coming off bythe end of the day. This is because of sebum. Our body produces sebum at a level that we can’t imagine.

Simiarly, sunscreen comes off with sebum.

Before conducting this experiment, I also thought that sunscreen wouldn’t come off THAT easily with sweat and sebum. 

But after discovering that sunscreen comes of with sebum very easily, I’ve become more aware of the importance of waterproof sunscreens.

Damage caused by UV rays are more dangerous than damage caused by stimulation from rubbing sunscreen off

True, waterproof sunscreens are more difficult to remove.

As we explained earlier, sunscreens that are TOO difficult to remove will cause irritation to your already-sensitive skin.

But compared to the damage caused by UV rays, this is a minor issue. UV rays are becoming stronger by the day, and its effects on our skin are huge.

Health problems caused by UV damage

  • Sunburn and suntan
  • Age spots
  • Wrinkles
  • Sagging skin
  • Benign tumors and masses
  • Precancerous symptoms
  • Skin cancer

Damage caused by UV rays is not limited to skin redness. It causes your skin to age faster too.

It is widely believed that age spots and wrinkles form with age. In reality, old age makes up only 20% of your skin’s aging. The other 80% is caused by UV ray sun damage.

How fast your skin ages, how old you look – it all depends on how much sun damage you can prevent.

UV rays can also cause tumors and skin cancer.

In other words, protecting your skin from UV rays is not just about the look and beauty of your skin. It’s something that you need to do for your health and wellbeing.

Yes, removing waterproof sunscreens with cause more irritation to your skin than non-waterproof sunscreens. But this irritation is miniscule when you compare it to the damage from UV rays. 

For sensitive skin, waterproof sunscreens are much better than easy-to-remove sunscreens.

Choose a cream-type or milk-type sunscreen for maximum safety and effects

With cream-type and milk-type sunscreens, you can easily adjust the amount of use. Unlike gel-type and spray-type sunscreens, you can apply the sunscreen evenly on your skin.

Cream-type and milk-type sunscreens are also easier to process UV scattering agents. In other words, they can be made with 100% UV scattering agents. This will significantly minimize irritation to sensitive skin.

Gel-type and lotion-type sunscreens cannot block UV rays effectively

Gel-type and lotion-type sunscreens have a watery texture. They are very smooth and glide over the skin easily. This characteristic is thanks to UV scattering agents.

Sure it’s convenient, but people with sensitive skin should avoid sunscreens like this.

Because they glide over the skin easily, you’re more likely to have a thin layer of sunscreen on your skin. Due to this, the UV-blocking effects of the sunscreen are not maximized and your skin is not fully protected from UV rays.

Spray-type sunscreens are merely a helping hand

Spray-type sunscreens are very convenient because you can apply sunscreen without getting your hands dirty. You can also apply sunscreen to areas that are difficult to reach.

But the con of spray-type sunscreens is that its application is always uneven.

The UV-blocking properties of sunscreens are produced when a certain amount is applied evenly on the skin. That’s why spray-type sunscreens canot fully protect your skin against UV rays.

The best way to use spray-type sunscreens is after a cream-type or mil-type sunscreen has been applied first. Spray-type sunscreens should only be a helping hand for extra sun protection.

According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), sunscreen is absorbed from the skin to your bloodstream. They also discovered that spray-type sunscreens barely have an effect on UV protection. Even after participants stopped using spray-type sunscreens, the amount of chemical substances in their bloodstream continued to increase.

The effects of sunscreen absorption into the bloodstream is still unclear. That’s all the more reason to not use spray-type sunscreens.

Gel-, lotion-, and spray-type sunscreens have very little UV-blocking effectiveness and cause harm to your skin AND body. This is why they should be avoided.

The FDA also found that, among all the sunscreens that were absorbed into the bloodstream, the amount of chemical substances decreased the fastest with cream-type sunscreens.

From the perspectives of safety and effectiveness, it’s quite clear that a cream-type or milk-type sunscreen is the best one to use.

Not to mention, the FDA claims that “among 16 UV-blocking ingredients, titanium dioxide and zinc oxide were the only ones deemed safe and effective.” Another reason why choosing a sunscreen with 100% UV scattering agents is the way to go.

The ideal sunscreen is a cream-type or milk-type sunscreen that only contains UV scattering agents.

Test the sunscreen with a sample size or trial set to make sure it suits your skin

Before we go any further, let’s review what we’ve learned so far.

Criteria for choosing sunscreen when you have sensitive skin

  • SPF 20~30
  • 100% UV scattering agents
  • Waterproof
  • Cream-type or milk-type

After passing the above criteria, check whether the sunscreen has a sample size or trial set.

No matter how safe it may be, it’s not guaranteed that everyone can use it.

Each person has a different skin type and skin problems. Some may also be allergic to certain ingredients. The suitability of the sunscreen can only be determined once you use it.

Sure, you could purchase the full-size product from the get go. But if it doesn’t suit your skin, it would be a waste of money.

In order to avoid that risk, it’s best to start with a sample size or trial set.

For those of you with sensitive skin, it’s also best to not apply the product on your face immediately. Instead, you should conduct a patch test first.

You should conduct a patch test on your upper arm to check that you aren’t allergic to the ingredients contained in the sunscreen. By doing this, you can avoid redness, tingling, and other skin problems that may occur from applying a potentially-unsuitable sunscreen on your face.


There are 5 criteria when choosing a sunscreen for sensitive skin.

5 criteria for choosing sunscreen when you have sensitive skin

  • Sunscreen with SPF 20~30 to effectively block UV rays
  • Sunscreen with only 100% UV scattering agents to prevent irritation
  • Waterproof sunscreen to avoid it from coming off easily
  • Cream-type or milk-type sunscreens for even application and maximum effects
  • Sunscreen with a sample size or trial set to make sure it suits your skin

By following these 5 criteria, you can protect your skin from UV rays without having to worry about irritation or dryness – even if you have sensitive skin!




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