By Brooke Sander
Ahhhh, summer! Winter coats and sweaters are a distant memory. The hot sun feels good against your skin, the warmth reminding you to buy your annual supply of sunblock. So which brand will you buy this year?
First, look for broad spectrum sunblocks, which block both UVA and UVB rays. UVA rays are responsible for aging the skin (eeew!) while UVB rays are what cause sunburn (ouch!).
Second, consider the two types of sunblocks. Chemical sunblocks are light and easy to apply but may cause allergic reactions or irritate the skin. Nonchemical sunblocks use titanium dioxide and/or zinc oxide to block UV rays and are less likely to cause skin reactions; however, they can be hard to rub in completely without leaving a white film.
I tested a few sunblocks that I found at my local drug store – most claiming to be noncomedogenic (won’t clog your pores), hypoallergenic and fragrance free. All are broad spectrum sunblocks. How did they do? Here are the results of my personal tests.
Coppertone® Oil Free Faces, SPF 30, chemical sunblock: Very watery but rubbed in easily and was not greasy or oily. I wouldn’t exactly call it fragrance free as advertised – the lotion smells like, well, suntan lotion. It’s a very light scent but one you’ll recognize.
Aveeno® Active Naturals™ , SPF 30, chemical sunblock: A thicker lotion compared with the Coppertone, it also rubbed in easily and was oil free. I found the scent to be somewhat stronger than Coppertone but not bothersome.
Neutrogena® Sensitive Skin Sunblock Lotion, SPF 30, chemical sunblock: Easy to rub in and has a lighter scent than the two lotions above. Doesn’t appear to be waterproof.
Trader Joe’s® Sunblock Lotion, SPF 30, nonchemical sunblock: This titanium dioxide formula was the consistency of freshly opened sour cream, but it had a non-greasy feeling and rubbed in easily. The scent reminded me of plain yogurt – or maybe it was sour cream! The scent annoyed me while putting it on, but once rubbed in I could no longer smell it.
Eau Thermale Avene Sunblock Lotion, SPF 25, non-chemical sunblock: This titanium dioxide and zinc oxide lotion was a very thick apricot color that was difficult to rub all the way in. If you have a darker skin tone (like my friend Tommy), this lotion is even harder to blend in. The light scent reminded me of interior paint, but it disappeared once rubbed in.
Mustela® Very High Sun Protection Lotion for babies, SPF 50, nonchemical sunblock: We tried this one – made with titanium dioxide, iron oxide and zinc oxide – on the AANMA managing editor’s baby boy. It was easy to rub in but did leave a white residue on his skin at first (it faded quickly). The lotion also left brown stains on his outfit where it got on his clothes, but the stains came out in the wash with some spot treatments.
With these and many other choices, how do you find the sunblock that’s right for you?
Test the Scent: You may find that the scent disappears once rubbed in. On the other hand, you may find that a scent you thought was fine in the bottle makes you sneeze after smelling it nonstop for an hour.
Check the Ingredients: The word “hypoallergenic” on a product label doesn’t guarantee that people with allergies or eczema won’t have a reaction. Although titanium and/or zinc sunblocks are recommended by some allergists, they may contain the same inactive ingredients found in chemical sunblocks that can cause skin reactions. Check the ingredient list for both active and inactive ingredients.
Parabens are often used as preservatives in creams, ointments and lotions to keep oils from getting rancid. However, one of our medical editors tells us that parabens can cause irritation and contact dermatitis for people with allergies and sensitive skin. Try to find products that are paraben-free. And no mater how “hypoallergenic” a sunblock claims to be, test it on a small area of your skin first before slathering it all over your body. It can take up to two days for you to see a reaction, and some reactions require exposure to the sun (photosensitivity) to develop. Itching may be an early symptom of an allergic reaction – even if you don’t have a rash yet. Your best bet? Talk to your allergist to find a product that will work best for you.
It takes more than just sunblock to protect your summer fun. For more sunblock specifics and important tips on staying safe in the sun, check out the FDA’s Consumer Magazine.
First published: Allergy & Asthma Today, Summer 2006
Reviewed: April 2009