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The best natural sunscreens for sensitive skin

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Living in Australia, we are all too familiar with how important sunscreen is for our skin's health. Our nation has some of the highest rates of skin cancer in the world. Fortunately, modern sunscreen formulas cater to all skin types and skin tones and offer broad sun protection to shield against skin cancers, but it's good to know what properties and chemicals will irritate infants and people with acne and sensitive skin.

For babies and those with sensitive skin, natural sunscreens may be the way to go. Whether you're raising a young family or simply wish to incorporate healthy skincare habits into your daily routine, wearing the right sunscreen will ensure your skin is protected from UV damage and looks good at the same time.

Lady wearing Sunscreen and hat at the beach

How sunscreen protects your skin

Put simply, sunscreen is a chemical filter that absorbs or reflects UV rays before they penetrate your skin. Crucially, however, it is not a fail-safe; sunscreen does not completely block UV radiation. Rather, it substantially reduces the amount of ultraviolet light that reaches our skin.

Ultraviolet light, that is, parts of the solar radiation spectrum that cannot be seen as visible light, can interact with DNA. Repeated damage to DNA from UV rays can damage skin cells, causing sunburn and potentially leading to cell DNA mutations, which develop into skin cancer.

There are three types of ultraviolet light. UVC is the most harmful, with the most amount of energy, but luckily for us, it is predominately filtered by the Earth's atmosphere and barely reaches the surface. UVC rays become a greater issue if you spend a lot of time in the air. For this reason, airline crew and pilots are in the risk zone of skin cancer.

UVA is long-wave radiation that penetrates deep into the skin and causes wrinkles and other visible signs of aging. Scientists call this 'photo-damage'. However, UVA also causes damage at the cellular level, contributing to skin cancer development.

UVB radiation is short-wave, containing more energy than UVA and thus is referred to as the primary source of hazardous sunburn, responsible for most non-melanoma skin cancers: basal cell carcinoma (BCC) and squamous cell carcinoma (SCC). Both UVA and UVB suppress the skin's immune system.

Sunscreens that protect against both UVB and UVA are considered broad-spectrum. Also important to note is that SPF stands for Sun Protection Factor, and the higher the rating, the stronger and longer the sun protection. As a general rule of thumb, you should apply sunscreen with a minimum SPF rating of 30+ and reapply every 2 hours.

Older couple on the beach applying sunscreen

Sensitive skin? No problem!

Symptoms of sensitive skin are a wide spectrum. Some people notice redness, dryness, peeling or hive-like little bumps on their skin. Others see nothing but feel irritation, such as stinging, itching or burning, when applying certain products to their skin.

For sunscreen, you want to find a broad-spectrum product to ensure holistic coverage. If you plan on swimming at the beach or diving into the pool at your next backyard summer barbeque, a cream with 3-hour water resistance is also ideal. Water-resistant sunscreens will also help keep your sunscreen coverage intact as you sweat.

However, for people with sensitive skin, mineral sunscreens may mitigate any irritation, rather than chemical sunscreens. Mineral sunscreen, also known as physical sunscreen and zinc, contains naturally occurring active ingredients like titanium dioxide and zinc oxide. While mineral sunscreens leave a white cast, they are safest for reactive skin types and the environment, and that opaque, chalky whiteness also serves as a good measure of when to reapply. Mineral sunscreens create a physical separation between your skin and the sun, which is also optimal for babies and children. Research shows that extensive sun damage in the first ten years of life increases your chances of developing skin cancer in adulthood

A sunscreen made from a hypoallergenic formula is ideal for babies and for face, body, and sensitive skin coverage. These sunscreens are designed to be soft on the skin and less likely to cause allergic reactions while protecting against UVA and UVB rays

To reduce peeling and dark marks, invest in a broad-spectrum sunscreen that contains Vitamin E and coconut extract. Vitamin E is full of protective antioxidants for your skin that also help to heal scarring. Similarly, coconut oil moisturises and softens your skin and nail beds, strengthening your skin from future peeling.  

Moreover, many brands on the market specialise in specialty sunscreens, so if you are eczema-, psoriasis-, or rosacea-prone, you can rest assured that there are products that will keep you sun smart and looking good.

People with severe skin damage may need to avoid the sun altogether and take Vitamin D supplements. But overall, it's never too late to start wearing sunscreen, even for elderly people.

woman applying sunscreen on her hand

Tips to Remember

  • Choose broad-spectrum sunscreen to protect against both UVA and UVB radiation.
  • Choose SPF 30+ or higher: Look for high-factor sunscreen to maximise the protection of your skin. Remember: the higher the rating, the better.
  • Avoid oxybenzone: The common sunscreen ingredient oxybenzone is absorbed readily into the skin and the bloodstream. Unfortunately, this compound can cause allergies and possibly hormone disruption. 
  • Choose a sunscreen with zinc oxide: Zinc oxide provides an alternative to oxybenzone and creates a physical barrier between your skin and the sun’s dangerous rays. Search for sunscreen with at least 7% zinc oxide.
  • Look local: Keep in mind that over-the-counter sunscreens in Australia are accurately SPF-rated and quality-controlled. It’s not possible to ensure the rating of sunscreens that are produced and sold overseas.

Signs to watch out for

Even with the diligent application of high-factor sunscreen and the consistent use of protective UV-rated clothing (dark and tightly-woven garments offer the most protection) and other sun-safe behaviours, it is still important to regularly check your skin for any changes that may herald the development of skin cancer.

When it comes to detecting skin cancer and melanomas, it is best to observe the ABCDE rule when checking for skin spots, moles and other marks:

  • A: Asymmetrical moles, spots or lesions are more prone to developing into melanoma.
  • B: Borders of moles or spots that are irregular (not round) are at greater risk of becoming cancerous.
  • C: Colours that change or that are irregular in the same spot should be checked further.
  • D: Diameters of spots or moles that are larger than 6 mm (the size of a pencil eraser) are worth investigating further.
  • E: Evolving spots or moles that you notice changes in should be checked by a professional as soon as possible.
female patient talking to receptionist at Sun Doctors

Keeping yourself and your family safe

If you have any questions about choosing the safest sunscreen for babies and sensitive skin, it’s best to ask your skin doctor.

The doctors at SunDoctors are the experts in checking your skin for signs of skin cancer. With skin cancer clinics across QLD, NSW, VIC & SA, make sure you book in to give both yourself and your family peace of mind, letting you and your loved ones get back to work and play that much sooner!

Call us on 13 SKIN (13 75 46) to book your appointment today!

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