If you're one of the 1 million Australians living with atopic dermatitis (eczema), then you understand the challenges of finding the best protection against the summer sun. When you're dealing with skin irritation and inflammation, choosing the right sunscreen is paramount.
The national eczema association that supports people living with the debilitating skin condition, the Eczema Association Australasia, says that the chemicals, fragrances and preservatives in some sunscreens can exacerbate eczema flare-ups. So, how do you navigate through the wide range of choices at your local chemist?
To make things easier, we've compiled a list of what to look for when shopping for a gentle, safe sunscreen that won't cause a reaction.
What is eczema?
Although eczema is a common skin condition that affects babies, children and adults, it can be a potentially debilitating problem that can impact a sufferer's entire well-being.
Eczema is when the skin does not hold moisture well, leading to dry, itchy skin and redness. It can be triggered by heat, stress or allergies in the environment.
Why is sun protection important for those with eczema?
Staying protected from sun damage is crucial if you suffer from eczema. While moderate sun exposure can have benefits for some people with eczema, it can cause flare-ups in others. Sunburn can cause inflammation and lead to infection, while the natural salts in perspiration can exacerbate eczema.
7 tips to select the best sunscreen for eczema
- Use mineral sunscreen.
- Choose sunscreens with paraben-free ingredients.
- Read sunscreen labels to avoid eczema-irritating ingredients.
- Look for eczema sunscreens approved by the TGA.
- Select the right SPF rating.
- Opt for broad-spectrum labelled sunscreens.
- Check your sunscreen's water resistance.
1. Use a mineral sunscreen
Sunscreen ingredients can be divided into two categories: physical (or mineral) and chemical. A mineral sunscreen is often the best option for people with eczema and sensitive skin. These reflect the sun's rays without being absorbed as the lotion sits on top of the skin layer.
Conversely, chemical brands penetrate the layers of your skin, absorbing the UV rays and emitting them from the body as heat. They tend to be more irritating, whereas mineral sunblocks act more like a moisturiser.
As sunscreens contain many ingredients, it can be a challenge to decipher which ones will cause a reaction. Doing a patch test a few days before a full application will ensure you and your family have no negative response.
2. Choose paraben-free sunscreens
Parabens are man-made chemicals used as preservatives in food, drink, makeup and pharmaceuticals. Reading the label on the sunscreen bottle is the best way to determine which sunscreens might contain an ingredient that can cause an eczema flare-up. Here are some of the good ingredients to look out for that are free from parabens:
- Zinc oxide (ZnO): known for its antibacterial properties, it blocks UVA and UVB rays of sunlight.
- Titanium dioxide (TiO2): a very efficient mineral for protecting you from the whole range of UV sunlight, scattering UVA and UVB rays.
- Aloe vera: natural and soothing, aloe vera is brimming with vitamins to help soothe your skin.
- Shea butter: anti-inflammatory and will help skin retain moisture.
- Sunflower oil: helps build the skin barrier and protects it.
- Jojoba: a natural oil that is rich in vitamin E and helps hydrate your skin.
- Coconut oil: anti-microbial and offers healing properties that reduce inflammation.
- Vitamin E: a potent vitamin that helps prevent free radical damage caused by UV rays.
Hydration is essential for preventing eczema flare-ups. So, when looking at the ingredients list, take special care to ensure they are natural and moisturising for you and your family's skin.
3. Read sunscreen labels to avoid eczema-irritating ingredients
Aside from parabens, there are some other ingredients in sunscreen that are best avoided if you're living with eczema. Look out for the following when you're reading the packaging label:
- Fragrance: these can cause allergies or a flare-up and cause inflammation.
- Octisalate: irritant that causes inflammation and absorbs UV light.
- Avobenzone: breaks down into smaller compounds that inflame the skin and cause flares.
- Oxybenzone: can interfere with hormones and disrupt ceramides.
- Homosalate: hormone disruptor and skin allergen.
- Octocrylene: increases skin allergens and is an irritant.
- Octinoxate: can cause skin reactions and acne.
- Alcohol: propagates irritation and stinging and can be called ethyl alcohol, denatured alcohol, isopropyl alcohol, methanol, lanolin or benzyl.
By choosing mineral sunscreens, you can avoid damage to your ceramides (the natural oils in the skin) and prevent sun damage without the above ingredients.
4. Look for sunscreens approved by the TGA
Sunscreen in Australia is regulated by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA). The TGA often reviews brands on the market to ensure they are effective and labelled correctly. You can tell if a sunscreen has been approved by the TGA by checking to see if it has an AUST L number on its label.
Apart from certifications, your skin cancer doctor can help guide you with the certifications and the best sunscreens to look for that suit your skin type.
Other certifications to look for include:
- Cancer council approved
- Sensitive skin sunscreen
- Certified organic.
5. Select the right SPF rating
Sunscreens have a sun protection factor (SPF) number on the label, which can be between 4 and 50+. This offers a measure of protection. The higher the SPF number, the increased amount of protection against sunburn.
For example, SPF 30 means the sunscreen admits 1/30th of the UV rays, whereas SPF 50 admits 1/50th. In 2012, the TGA increased the standard for sunscreens from SPF30+ to SPF50+.
People are all different and can get sunburn due to a variety of factors, such as:
- UV levels: the higher the UV level, the faster sun damage occurs in the skin.
- Skin types: fair skin burns more easily than darker skin, just as the skin of a baby is more sensitive than an adult. Acne-prone skin also requires more care.
- Water or sweating: swimming, drying and sweating all have an effect on how effective the sunscreen will be.
- Application: it is important to follow the guidelines and apply creams and lotions correctly as well as reapply every two hours to achieve the SPF protection on the label.
A sunscreen with a minimum SPF of 30 will offer you the best protection against the effects of sun exposure.
6. Opt for broad-spectrum labelled sunscreens
"Grandpa applying sunscreen to boy's face"
Ultraviolet rays from the sun reach the Earth's surface as either UVA or UVB rays, making reference to their wavelengths. These are the most damaging to our skin.
UVB rays produce sunburn and also cause skin cancer, including melanoma. UVA rays also play a part in causing cancer but penetrate into the deeper layer of the skin. They play the primary role in causing premature ageing, including wrinkles.
Sunscreen products labelled 'broad-spectrum' provide protection against both UVA and UVB rays.
7. Check your sunscreen's water resistance
"Aerial view of man underwater in pool"
A sunscreen that's water resistant is less likely to wear off during exercise from sweating or swimming. Even if the packaging states that the product is '4 hours water resistant', it is best to reapply sunscreen every two hours in order to attain the optimal level of SPF protection.
Applying sunscreen 20 minutes before heading out to the beach or any other activity under UV light offers the best protection.
Other ways to care for skin with eczema
Hot, dry summers can prove a nightmare for eczema sufferers. When the skin sweats, it can cause relentless itching and irritation because sweat contains irritants and causes the skin to become very dry.
As well as using a water-resistant mineral sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30, the Eczema Association Australasia recommends applying moisturiser 30 minutes before applying sunscreen to reduce skin irritation.
However, applying sunscreen is just one measure that can help protect eczema-prone skin. Be sure to also:
- Cover up with cotton clothing when in the sun.
- Find shade during the hottest parts of the day to avoid eczema flare-ups after sweating.
- Hydrate by drinking plenty of water throughout the day.
- Wear sunglasses and a broad-brimmed hat that protects your neck and shoulders.
- Rinse salt water and chlorine off of your skin after you finish swimming. Don't forget to reapply sunscreen again afterwards.
- Make sure your sunscreen hasn't reached its best before date, and keep it in the fridge to provide relief for itchy skin conditions.
- Avoid eczema triggers wherever possible.
- Find a moisturising screen brand that gives you good coverage while being gentle on your skin so that you are more likely to apply it daily.
- Don't blend your sunscreen with moisturiser. Instead, apply soothing creams 30 minutes before sunscreen.
- Consistency in your skincare routine can help prevent eczema flare-ups. Stick with your plan even over the holiday season.
So, which sunscreen is best for people with eczema?
Unfortunately, what works for one person won't work for others. The best way to find a sunscreen that doesn't cause an eczema flare-up is to follow the above tips to find products with a formula that's safe for your skin.
When trying a new product, always perform a patch test. Put a small amount of sunscreen on very small areas of your skin, such as on your neck behind your ear, where you are less likely to rub it or wash it away accidentally. Wait for at least 48 hours for signs of irritation or redness before you use the product on the rest of your body.
Eczema or not, don't forget your annual skin check
Research indicates eczema is linked to an increased risk of developing skin cancer. But it's important to remember that all skin types are susceptible to skin cancer and that early detection and treatment are key to a successful recovery. So, take control of your health and book in for a skin check today!
The doctors at SunDoctors are experts when it comes to skin cancer detection and treatment. They can also provide you with more information on how to best look after your skin and keep it safe from the sun. With clinics across QLD, NSW, VIC & SA, call us on 13 SKIN (13 75 46) to find your nearest clinic or to book an appointment.