Safe and Sensitive Sunscreen

By Christina Elston


Sunscreens with physical blockers such as zinc oxide are safer for sensitive skin. PHOTO BY ALEKSANDER ZAGDANSKI/FREEDIGITALIMAGES.COM

Sun protection is a year-round necessity in Southern California. But what if you have a child with sensitive skin or a teen battling acne? Dermatologist Paola Rodriguez, M.D., from Kaiser Permanente South Bay Medical Center, shares great options for every skin type.

How does sunscreen protect our skin?

There are a couple of different ways in which sunscreen can protect our skin. Physical sunscreen, which some people would call a sun block, is actually reflecting the UV light away from our skin. It uses particles like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, and they bounce the light right off. A chemical sunscreen is going to filter the light. Those chemicals are absorbed into the skin and filter out the UV so it can’t get to our skin cells and cause damage to the DNA.

Does one kind of sunscreen protect better than the other?

The physical sunscreens tend to be a little bit better because they have a broader spectrum of activity. Physical sunscreens are pretty good at covering UVA and UVB, whereas chemical sunscreens are a little bit more narrow. If you look at the ingredients of a chemical sunscreen, you’ll see 2.5 percent of this one and 5 percent of that one. They’re trying to combine different chemical sunscreens so that ultimately we have broad-spectrum coverage.

Is one or the other gentler to the skin?

Physical sunscreen tends to be a little bit better for sensitive skin because it doesn’t have to be absorbed. It sits right on the surface. Some chemical sunscreens can cause irritation.

We have creams, lotions, gels, sticks and sprays. What are some of the pros and cons of these different types?

I normally tell my patients that the sunscreen that you will use is the sunscreen that I prefer. There are hundreds of different types. There are all these different vehicles that we can put sunscreen in, so there’s probably going to be one that you’re going to be able to tolerate. Pick something that you’re comfortable using on a regular basis.

If your skin is a little bit on the dry side, using a cream is no big deal. Sometimes people who have oilier skin, or who have acne-prone skin, are going to want to use something a little big more light weight. That would be a lotion. You can actually even get sunscreen protection in powder form now.

For kids who are running around and you can barely get them to sit still for a minute, sometimes the spray is the best way to get some sun protection on. They have some really cool sprays that you can spray onto wet skin. One of the downsides of using a spray is that making sure that the skin is being completely covered is a little bit trickier. But if you do that, it’ll be just as effective.

If you have a child who has really sensitive skin, what’s a good sunscreen plan for that child?

Babies under the age of 6 months, any kid who has sensitive skin, and even adults should really stick to sunblocks that have the physical sunscreen. So that’s zinc oxide and titanium dioxide only. You want it to be fragrance free and dye free and have as few extra ingredients and preservatives as possible. There are a lot of options out there. There’s a brand called Vanicream that has a whole line dedicated to sensitive skin. Blue Lizard is another really popular one.

What about for parents who have teens who are dealing with acne, and don’t want to put sunscreen on because it makes their face break out?

We deal with that commonly, and it’s really important because teens who are being treated for acne are generally put on treatments that might make their skin more susceptible to the sun. One of the really important things to look for is sunscreen that’s non-comedogenic, which means it doesn’t clog your pores. And someone who has acne-prone skin or oily skin is going to want an oil-free lotion. Cetaphil makes one that is called “Oil Control Moisturizer” and it’s an SPF 30. We use that a lot in teenagers we’re treating for acne. There’s also a brand called La Roche-Posay that has Ultra Light Sunscreen Fluid that comes out very, very light and dries with that matte feel. There’s a brand that can only be sold at physicians’ offices called EltaMD, and they have one that’s called UV Clear and it’s formulated for acne-prone skin.

How can people tell whether they’re applying enough sunscreen so that they’re protected?

It’s hard. When they do the testing in the labs to determine an SPF level, they’re putting on way more sunscreen than most people typically put on. So most of the time we’re not getting the SPF that’s on the bottle. They use two ounces to cover a whole body. Imagine filling a shot glass. If you’re out in a bathing suit, you’re going to want to do at least that much, and maybe even two of those.

How do you know when to reapply?

No matter what the SPF is, whether it’s 15 or 100, it should be reapplied every two to three hours. If you’re at the beach and you’re active and sweating or getting wet, probably every two hours is going to be safer.

How can parents help their kids build good sunscreen and sun protection habits?


Dermatologist Paola Rodriguez, M.D., works at Kaiser Permanente South Bay Medical Center

I think probably number one is modeling it. Put your sunscreen on. Make sure you’re doing a good job of taking care of your own skin. With the really little ones, just make it a habit. They know that if we’re going outside, that’s what we do. My daughter knows. There’s never been an option to not put it on, so I think that to her it’s normal. That’s just what we do. She’s only 4, so we’ll see when she’s a teenager if she’s still listening to me.

What’s your sunscreen routine like?

I use the EltaMD line as part of my daily routine, and I have smaller sunscreens that I keep in my car and in my purse. For example, I’ve been working inside all day but now I’m going to be driving for half an hour and I know sun can get through the windows, so I’ll have a little something that I can reapply to my face, the backs of my hands, my forearms.

I also spend a lot of time at the beach. My husband still plays beach volleyball professionally, so I have to worry about me and I have to worry about him and I have to worry about my daughter. When I am at the beach, I really like a brand called Coola, and we usually do a layering thing. We’ll all put on cream on the face and on the body, and when we get there do another touch-up with the spray, and try to reapply every two hours.

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