How To Find The Best Sunscreens For Eczema, According To Dermatologists

Experts share exactly what to look for to prevent flare-ups in the sun.

By now, most of us know that sunscreen protects our skin against a variety of preventable issues, from skin cancer to aging. The problem? Finding the perfect formula can be challenging, especially if you’re prone to eczema.

“Eczema, also known as atopic dermatitis, is the most common inflammatory skin condition worldwide,” said Angela Casey, an Ohio-based board-certified dermatologist and Mohs micrographic skin cancer surgeon. “It can be flared by any process that creates inflammation in the skin, including UV exposure.”

Eczema often gives the appearance of pinkness, redness and dryness, and can make the skin feel sensitive, irritated, itchy and inflamed, Casey said. This is a concern when it comes to finding the right sunscreen that agrees with this skin type, as many formulas are made with ingredients that can exacerbate the condition.

So, what should eczema-prone people look for (and avoid) in their sunscreens? Here are five non-negotiables.

Use only fragrance-free products.

That floral-smelling sunscreen may sound enticing, but it’s likely your eczema-prone skin won’t be happy with it. The reason: Fragrance can be an allergen, or the ingredient that tips the scale in triggering an eczema flare.

“Individuals with eczema have more sensitive skin compared to the general population, and any skin care ingredient that might cause an allergic reaction can flare symptoms of eczema,” Casey said. Fragrance has a higher likelihood of fueling allergic contact dermatitis, so it’s best to avoid it (as well as parfum) on an ingredient label.

Also, be wary of products labeled as “unscented.” According to Erum N. Ilyas, a Pennsylvania-based board-certified dermatologist, this term actually references a product that likely has ingredients added to neutralize the odor of a product and make it less offensive. “If your goal is to have a product that is truly without actual fragrances (meaning, without added ingredients used to impart a pleasant odor), then these products will usually be labeled ‘fragrance-free,’” she said.

Choose a broad-spectrum sunscreen.

Especially for those with eczema, it’s important to opt for a broad-spectrum sunscreen that protects against both UVA and UVB rays, as they “already have a predisposition to sensitive and irritated skin,” Casey said. “UV exposure contributes to this sensitivity and irritation, and this effect of sun exposure can be mitigated by proper application of a sunscreen with adequate SPF.”

UVA or UVB alone aren't enough. Make sure you're choosing a broad spectrum sunscreen that contains both.
Peter Dazeley via Getty Images
UVA or UVB alone aren't enough. Make sure you're choosing a broad spectrum sunscreen that contains both.

Opt for physical sunscreens vs. chemical.

First up: a lesson on physical vs. chemical sunscreens. Physical sunblocks feature ingredients zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, which reflect UV rays off the skin. Chemical sunscreens include oxybenzone, avobenzone and octocrylene, and work by absorbing UV rays and converting that energy into heat. Casey recommends physical sunscreens over chemical, as they may be more gentle for eczema-prone skin.

“Because chemical sunscreens work by converting the UV light energy to heat, they can cause irritation in the skin,” she said. “The heat that’s produced by this process can generate more inflammation, thereby propagating the inflammation to sensitivity to itching to the irritation cycle of eczema.” Those with eczema will want to avoid anything that can contribute to further inflammation in the skin.

Always conduct a test patch.

Concerned a sunscreen you’re eyeing may trigger a flare-up or cause skin irritation? Patch tests can be a helpful way to get ahead of any potential adverse reactions and determine if you’re allergic to a particular product or ingredient.

Dr. Marisa Garshick, a board-certified dermatologist based in New York, suggests conducting an at-home patch test with sunscreens by “applying it to a small area on the forearm or behind the neck and evaluating for any reaction.” Keep in mind that adverse reactions (such as itching, rashes, burning or blistering) can take a few days to develop.

You can also opt for in-office patch testing, which Garshick said “evaluates multiple different ingredients that may be found in sunscreens such as preservatives, fragrances and chemical UV filters.” This can be insightful in determining if you’re allergic to a specific ingredient.

Keep your skin barrier hydrated.

Your skin barrier is a physical barrier made up of “lipids, ceramides and fatty acids that work to keep moisture in and external irritants out,” Garshick explained. “Individuals with eczema have a weaker skin barrier, which leaves their skin more susceptible to moisture loss, leading to dryness of the skin as well as increased sensitivity to external factors that may cause the skin to be more allergic or sensitive.”

One way to ensure your skin barrier is intact is to choose products containing ingredients that hydrate the skin. “This could include ingredients such as ceramides and hyaluronic acid, and even some anti-inflammatory ingredients such as niacinamide,” Ilyas said. Another way to optimize your skin barrier is to avoid ingredients that may lead to inflammation, such as retinol, AHAs and BHAs (as are commonly found in sunscreens labeled “anti-aging”).

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