If you have sensitive skin, you know that not all sun care products are created equally. There's always the concern that a product may cause a bad reaction, like dryness, redness, and inflammation. Still, sunscreen is important for every skin tone and type. Don't let the fear of sunscreen irritation keep you from practicing proper sun safety.

Fortunately, there's a variety of sunscreen products out there, so you can find the one that's perfect for you. The first step is to identify the cause of your irritation and then find the right ingredients that can keep your skin happy, healthy, and protected.

What Causes Sunscreen Irritation?

According to the Cancer Council Australia, contact dermatitis is a common reaction to sunscreen. Contact dermatitis occurs when a product or a specific ingredient causes a skin reaction, like redness, itchiness, or a burning sensation. There are two common types:

  • Irritant contact dermatitis: This is when a reaction occurs right after applying sunscreen. You'll notice a reaction right where you put sunscreen on, oftentimes causing redness and mild stinging.

  • Allergic contact dermatitis: This is basically an allergic reaction to an ingredient found in sunscreen. Allergic contact dermatitis appears as an itchy rash on the area where sunscreen is applied but can spread significantly to other areas. This reaction is less common.

A rare type of reaction to also look out for is photocontact dermatitis, which is an irritation that occurs when your sunscreen-covered skin is exposed to sunlight. When there's an interaction between an ingredient in the sunscreen and the sun's harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays, a skin reaction can occur in the form of severe sunburn or even eczema. Keep in mind that this is a very rare occurrence, even if you have sensitive skin.

How to Avoid Sunscreen Irritation

It can be hard to determine whether you'll react negatively to sunscreen or not, so you need to be patient and do a little trial and error before you land on your perfect product. First, it's important to identify your skin type and look for products formulated for you and your skin concerns. Chat with EltaMD's Elyse who can help recommend sunscreen that works for oily, dry, combination, sensitive, and mature skin.

Then, conduct a patch test on the inside of your forearm and wait a couple of days to see if your skin reacts or not. If you don't have a reaction, then it's safe to apply all over your body. If you do get a reaction, this is a clear sign that you need to stop using that product and look for something with gentler ingredients. Sensitive skin needs soothing and anti-inflammatory ingredients like niacinamide and ceramides, which promote and maintain moisture while also reducing inflammation.

And while it may be tempting to load up on multiple products to keep your sensitive skin hydrated, you should know what skin care products not to use together. Moisturizers have similar soothing ingredients, but you should keep your moisturizer and sunscreen separate. There's no benefit to mixing these products together, as you run the risk of diluting both products and potentially exacerbating skin irritation. Instead, layer your products in the correct order, and give each one a few minutes to soak into your skin.

Commit to Sunscreen for Life

Don't let the possibility of sunscreen irritation frighten you away from doing what's best for your skin and your health overall. Know that there's a sunscreen out there that's made for you, and commit to a daily habit for life. Your skin will thank you!


  • Audrey Noble

    Audrey Noble is a New York City-based reporter specializing in features, celebrity profiles, and beauty topics. Her work has appeared in Vogue, Harper's BAZAAR, Allure, Vanity Fair, Refinery29, and more. She is a University of Southern California alumna with bachelor's degrees in print journalism and creative writing.

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