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It has been a long journey to find an effective and non-toxic sunscreen that doesn’t give me a rash.
After I took a patch test three years ago to find out what I was allergic to, my dermatologist handed me a long list of contact allergens: oxybenzone and homosalate (a common chemical ingredients in sunscreens), most preservatives, bacteriacide, fungicide, and fragrance. Wow! That means I can’t use the majority of skincare products in the market.
My dermatologist suggested that I gave mineral sunscreens a try. That’s when I learned that there are two types of sun blockers: mineral and chemical ones. Mineral sunscreens, which contain zinc oxide and/or titanium oxide, sit on top of your skin to reflect UV rays. Chemical sunscreens penetrate into the skin and absorb UV rays.
Because of limited skin absorption, mineral sunscreens may be less irritating. But they often feel heavy and are difficult to rub in. They make me look like a geisha, and also clog my pores and give me acne.
Mineral sunscreens also consistently underperform in sun protection compared to their chemical counterparts. EcoCult founder Alden tried for years to make mineral sunscreen work, but usually ended up with terrible sunburns. And Honest Company’s sunscreen has even been sued for not being effective.
If mineral sunscreens work for you, great! If not, which chemical sunscreens are safe for sensitive skin and the environment? Let’s go through what you need to know.
What to Look for in an Eco-Friendly, Effective Sunscreen
It turns out that my allergy to oxybenzone is not an isolated example — it’s the most often flagged chemical in this regard. It can enter the bloodstream, and while there is still controversy about how much sunscreen you could possibly apply to reach levels harmful to your health, it has been tenuously linked to hormone disruption. Even so, about 70% of American sunscreens contain oxybenzone. If you have sensitive skin or are pregnant, I suggest you stay away from it or talk to your doctor before use.
Most chemical sunscreens in the U.S. contain avobenzone as an active ingredient. Avobenzone is an FDA-approved chemical to block UVA, the primary culprit of premature aging and skin cancer. But avobenzone breaks down very quickly in sunlight and releases harmful free radicals. So many brands add avobenzone stabilizers like octocrylene, homosalate, or octisalate. However, these chemicals may also trigger an allergic response and/or disrupt your hormone level.
If you have super sensitive skin like me, I recommend that you also avoid common irritants like formaldehyde (preservative), methylisothiazolinone (preservative), phthalates (solvents), and fragrance, which can hide more irritating ingredients inside.
Hot tip: If you want to understand ingredient safety in your skincare products (without getting a Ph.D. in chemistry), check out skinCarisma or INCIdecoder. Both are analyzer tools that explain what each ingredient does to your skin in layman’s terms.
Beginning in 2021, the state of Hawaii will ban the sale of sunscreen containing oxybenzone and octinoxate, since both can lead to coral bleaching, deformities, and even death. In addition to oxybenzone and octinoxate, there is a long list of marine pollutants, including many UV filters, and preservatives. If you are swimming close to coral reefs, please stay away from products containing these chemicals.
Powerful broad-spectrum protection
Of course, even the most sustainable sunscreen won’t win my money if it can’t do its job well. I need sunscreens with an SPF of 30 or more that block UVB rays (which reach the skin’s surface and cause sunburn) and UVA rays (which can reach the deeper skin tissue and cause aging and skin cancer).
In fact, consumers in the EU, Japan, and Australia have access to more advanced sun-blocking ingredients that are safe and effective, such as Tinosorb S, Tinosorb M, Uvinul A plus, Uvinul T 150, Mexoryl XL, and Mexoryl SX. However, except for Mexoryl SX (approved in 2006 for L’Oreal), others are not approved by the U.S. FDA, which claims there is not enough data to prove them safe.
In fact, the FDA has not added any new sunscreen ingredients since 1999. The FDA classifies sunscreens as over-the-counter drugs, not cosmetic ingredients like everywhere else in the world, which holds up approvals by years. Ironically, European regulators are much more stringent about general product safety. They are quick to ban questionable ingredients should there be any research showing health-concerns, while the FDA would cross a chemical off the list only after overwhelming evidence to prove it toxic.
I personally feel safer buying sunscreens from Europe or Japan than products in the U.S. market. Be aware that European products sold in the U.S. market may have different formulas to comply with FDA regulations. So if you live in the U.S., I recommend ordering from overseas or stock up if and when you travel to Europe or Asia.
Given all of the above considerations, here are my top picks of eco-friendly and effective sunscreens for sensitive skin:
UltraSun is a Swiss brand that specializes in sunscreens. I have been using the UltraSun Face SPF 30 for about two years and love it! It ticks all my boxes: powerful broad-spectrum sun filters (Tinosorb S, M, Uvinul A plus, Uvinul T 150), no common irritants like preservatives or fragrance, compliant with Hawaiian reef protection law, and water-resistant. UltraSun also added Ectoin, a powerful antioxidant to prevent aging. The only drawback is that it is on the pricier side (about $30 for a 50 mL bottle).
L’Oreal UV Perfect Super Aqua Essence SPF 50, PA++++
This L’Oreal sunscreen has active ingredients of Uvinul T 150, Uvinul A plus, Tinosorb S, Mexoryl XL, and titanium oxide. It is enriched with Detoxyl and hyaluronic acid to help protect skin from pollution particles and improve hydration. Be careful that this sunscreen contains alcohol for antibacterial purposes. If your skin is sensitive to alcohol, do a patch test before use.
Avene Suncare Cream SPF 50
Avene Suncare Cream contains Tinosorb M, Tinosorb S, and Avobenzone. It is important to note that Tinosorb can stabilize avobenzone to prevent the release of harmful free radicals. It is free of alcohol, fragrance, and essential oils, therefore very suitable for people with hypersensitive skin.
ANESSA moisture UV mild milk SPF 35
Most East-Asian countries are obsessed with a brighter complexion, which is associated with higher socioeconomic status. Growing up in China, I was taught that sunscreen is not just for beach days, but needs to be worn religiously every day (together with sun umbrellas, hats, and elbow-length gloves). Although I don’t agree with the “skin whitening” industry and the prejudice against darker skin, the Asian beauty market does offer top of the line sun-protection products. ANESSA is a very popular Japanese brand that I have been using for years. This blue bottle version ( for sensitive skin) has active ingredients of zinc oxide, Uvinul T 150, Uvinul A plus, and Tinosorb B. It is waterproof, alcohol-free, and has hyaluronic acid for moisturizing.
La Roche Posay Anthelios Sun Intolerance Cream SPF 50+
La Roche Posay sunscreen has been ranked among the top in effectiveness and safety. This one has active ingredients of Tinosorb S, Uvinul T 150, Mexoryl XL, Mexoryl SX, Titanium oxide, and avobenzone. When Mexoryl is combined with avobenzone, both are stabilized and enhanced. It is fragrance and essential oil-free but does contain alcohol.