Sensitive Skin: Your Guide to Surviving the Summer Sun

It’s mid-July, and the sun’s rays are out in full force.  For most people, summer is a time for frolics and picnics and mid-day strolls. For those of us with fair, sensitive skin, however, it can be a season of fearful hibernation: “Do we really need to go to the store now, honey? It’s NOON. Why don’t we wait until…I don’t know…midnight?”  Everything feels like an ordeal.  And heaven forbid there is an actual beach trip involved.  It’s all just so exhausting.

Because here’s the thing with fair skin: it burns easily, so you have to protect it.  It also irritates easily, which means all of those fancy products that are supposed to protect your skin from the evil that is The Sun also cause Lord knows how many different types of rashes and breakouts and inflammation and Oh Dear God. How on earth is a girl supposed to cope with such madness?  

The fact of the matter is, living and functioning in this crazy world can be tough. There will be challenges.  Protecting your skin shouldn’t be one of them. 

The good news: there are actually some pretty simple things you can do to have a safe, burn-free, breakout-free summer.  Let’s talk about some of them.

Simplicity Is Our Friend

The best rule of thumb when it comes to sensitive skin, even in the summertime: Keep It Simple.  If you find yourself following a five-step skin care regimen every morning before leaving the house, you are doing something wrong.  Stop it.  Try to whittle your products down to two, three at the most– and that includes the final application of sunscreen.  The final breakdown might look something like this:

Step 1- Cleanser

Step 2- Topical Medications/Moisturizer

Step 3- Sunscreen

Let’s look at each of these in more detail.

Step 1: Cleanser

When it comes to cleaning your face, you want something that is super gentle and formatted specifically for sensitive skin.  Some great, tried-and-true options include Eucerin or Cetaphil.  Stay away from fragrances, dyes, or over-the-counter acne fighting ingredients, such as Salicylic Acid. A good stress-test for a cleanser: if you can wash your delicate eye area with it, it’s safe enough for the rest of your face, too.  

Step 2: Topical Medications/Moisturizers

Unfortunately, skin sensitivity and other issues such as Acne and Rosacea often go hand in hand.  This means you may already have a topical cream prescribed by your dermatologist.  Make sure you are giving your medications and/or moisturizers time to absorb into your skin– approximately ten minutes should be sufficient–before applying sunscreen.

Many skin medications also come with a particularly frustrating side effect: they make your skin especially sensitive to sunlight.  This brings me to the final– and critical– stage of your summer sun protection regimen.

Step 3: Sunscreen

First, some clarification on key vocabulary, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation:

UVA- These rays are longer and penetrate deeper into your skin, causing lasting skin damage, skin aging, and possibly skin cancer.

UVB- These rays are shorter and cause sunburns, skin damage, and possibly skin cancer.

SPF- Short for “Sun Protection Factor,” SPF is a measurement for how well a product prevents UVB rays from damaging the skin.  As a general guide, SPF 15 filters out 93% of UVB rays, SPF 30 filters out 97%, and SPF 50 filters out 98%.

Broad Spectrum- These sunscreens protect the skin from both UVA and UVB rays.

The most important thing to note here is that an SPF rating is simply measuring the sunscreen’s ability to block out UVB rays, not UVA.  In order to protect yourself against both– which is highly recommended– you need to look for a sunscreen that says “Broad Spectrum.”  

Of course, if you have sensitive skin, there other factors to consider, especially when it comes to application on the face.  A good rule of thumb: invest in two separate sunscreens, one for your body and one for your face.  I also have a third, water-resistant option for when I am exercising or around water.

To avoid allergic reactions or clogged pores, hypoallergenic and non-comedogenic sunscreens are best. Unfortunately, labels such as “hypoallergenic” and “non-comedogenic” may imply that a product is safe for sensitive skin, but because there are no set government standards for the use of either term, it still may take some trial and error to know what works best for you.  If you are worried about an allergic reaction, test the product on your inner forearm, then wait a couple of hours and see if any irritation occurs.

Another option is to look for products that use physical, rather than chemical, blockers.  Although chemical absorbers are more prevalent, these sunscreens can also cause skin irritation. Physical blockers include mineral ingredients such as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide and work by forming a protective layer that reflects UVA and UVB rays away from the skin.

Whatever sunscreen you choose, make sure you are applying early– at least thirty minutes before sun exposure– and often, preferably every two hours.  I like to keep travel sized bottles of sunscreen with me, one for face and one for body.  (My personal favorites are Elta MD UV Clear SPF 46 for the face, and Eucerin Daily Hydration Lotion SPF 15 for the body.)  

Lastly…

In terms of foundation, refer to the first rule of thumb, listed above: Simplicity Is Our Friend.  Try going foundation-free for the summer and see if your skin thanks you for it later.  Or, as a compromise, save the foundation and concealer for going out at night, when the dark skies provide sanctuary against the harmful rays of day.

Finally, remember that sunscreen is only part of the equation.  If possible, try to stay indoors during the peak hours of the day, between 11am and 1pm.  Invest in fun hats and cool shades.  Personally, I would be thrilled to see the parasol make a big comeback, but maybe that is just wishful thinking.  

Whatever your method, however your approach, don’t let sensitive skin get the better of you this summer. Go wild and frolic midday.  Just wear a hat and some skin-friendly sunscreen while doing it.

Candace Bruchs

Candace Bruchs

As a native of North Carolina, Candace has a healthy obsession with pulled pork barbecue and is an ardent fan of bluegrass music--preferably live, under an open sky.After traveling from coast to coast-- quite literally-- and bouncing from one dramatically failed relationship to another, Candace found her guy and is still pinching herself.An English teacher by trade, she is a firm believer in the power of effective communication and adheres to a semi-Annual viewing schedule of The Lord of the Rings, extended edition (of course).When not reading/watching fantasy epics, Candace loves to be outdoors, play with her maladjusted dog, and explore life with her catch of a husband.
Candace Bruchs

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