What’s the Skinny on Sunscreen and Eczema?

Smiling woman with dark braided hair applies sunscreen to her cheeks. She's positioned in front of a tent in an outdoor setting.

By Margaret W. Crane

Published On: Jul 19, 2018

Last Updated On: Jun 2, 2022

If you receive any sun exposure at all, you need sunscreen. Unfortunately, not all sunscreen is created equally. What works for one person may not work for someone else. Finding the right product can be complicated and the task becomes even more challenging if you or your child has eczema. To help you keep your skin protected, we connected with board-certified dermatologist Dr. JiaDe “Jeff” Yu at Massachusetts General Hospital and asked our eczema community’s most frequently asked questions about choosing the right sunscreen.

How do I choose the right sunscreen?

With so many options, take time to read that sunscreen label carefully, said Dr. Yu. Check for all potential active ingredients. And consider the following guidance as you search for the perfect eczema-friendly sunscreen to suit your body’s individual needs:

  • Read the label carefully to see if it contains any potential known allergens
  • Look for sunscreen that has a sun protectant factor (SPF) of 30 greater; Dr. Yu explained that “anything over SPF 50 probably doesn’t make that much more of a difference since SPF-50 blocks 98% of the sun’s UV rays.”
  • Look for a product with mineral-based ingredients such as titanium dioxide (TiO2) and zinc oxide (ZnO); Dr. Yu added that people with eczema should “avoid any sunscreen whose active ingredients are NOT titanium or zinc.”
  • Make sure the product offers broad-spectrum SPF from both UVA and UVB rays;
  • Choose a product that’s alcohol-free and fragrance-free; Dr. Yu said that sunscreens labeled “for sensitive skin” have been shown to have fewer potentially allergenic ingredients than those not labeled as such.

Should I test a sunscreen product before I use it?

A small number of people are prone to photoallergic contact dermatitis, a skin reaction that occurs when the sun activates an ingredient found in sunscreen, perfume or medication. If you experience such a reaction, you can request a patch test from an allergist or dermatologist to identify the problematic ingredient and avoid products that contain it.

To test a sunscreen product, apply a small amount (about the size of a pea) to the inside of your wrist or the crook of your elbow. Don’t wash the area for 24-48 hours and watch for any allergic reaction such as itchiness, redness, flaking, pain, a rash or breakout of any kind. Dr. Yu explained that oxybenzone and avobenzone are two common allergens in sunscreen that “have been linked to allergic contact dermatitis,” so it’s best to avoid products with those ingredients.

How much sunscreen should I use?

To ensure that you maximize a sunscreen’s full potential, apply one ounce – about a shot glass full – to your face and the exposed parts of your body. Most people tend to apply only half or a quarter of that amount, which means the SPF they’re getting is lower than it should be. During a long day at the beach, use around a quarter to a half of an eight ounce tube or bottle. Dr. Yu advised that liberal application is important, especially since a “sunburn can potentially worsen atopic dermatitis, provoking the itch/scratch cycle.”

Where exactly should I apply it?

Apply sunscreen evenly to all uncovered skin, paying special attention to your lips, nose, ears, neck, hands and feet. If you don’t have much hair, apply some to the top of your head, or wear a hat. And remember, never apply sunscreen to damaged or broken skin. Instead, wear bandages or protective clothing over those areas to avoid infection, while still protecting the skin from sun rays.

How often should I use it?

Apply sunscreen about 30 minutes before sun exposure to allow the ingredients to fully bind to your skin. Make sure to reapply the same shot glass dose every two hours — and also immediately after swimming, toweling off or working up a sweat. Dr. Yu explained that “what most people don’t understand is that REAPPLICATION of sunscreen is what’s important. Most sunscreens have a water resistant time on the bottle. It’s either 40 minutes or 80 minutes. That means after 40 or 80 minutes, you have to reapply otherwise the sunscreen is no longer protecting you.”

Can’t I just use a moisturizer with sunscreen in it?

For everyday use, aftershave lotions and moisturizers containing sunscreen are fine. As long as you plan to spend just a few minutes here and there in the sun, your favorite lotion containing SPF-15 sunscreen may be enough. But if you’re at the beach, on a picnic or playing outdoor sports, use a serious, water-resistant sunscreen that’s up to the job of protecting you from the sun’s potentially harmful rays.

Do I need to apply sunscreen when it’s cold or cloudy outside?

You can develop UV-related sun damage in the winter. And even on a cloudy day, up to 40% of the sun’s UV rays come through. If you work and play outside, it’s a good idea to use sunscreen all year long. Dr. Yu advised people with eczema to remember that “sunscreen is always secondary protection from sunburns. UV-protecting hats and shirts (labeled as having UPF) are always better since they don’t wash off and don’t depend on you making sure you did a good job of applying it.”

Is there any way to narrow down the search?

Here’s a list of sunscreen products that have already earned the NEA Seal of Acceptance™:

  • AVEENO® Baby Natural Protection Lotion Sunscreen
  • AVEENO® Baby Natural Protection Face Stick Sunscreen
  • AVEENO® Natural Protection Lotion Sunscreen
  • CeraVe® SPF 50 Sunscreen Body Lotion
  • CeraVe® SPF 50 Sunscreen Face Lotion
  • CeraVe® Baby Sunscreen SPF 45
  • Neutrogena® Pure & Free® Liquid Sunscreen
  • Neutrogena® Sensitive Skin Sunscreen Lotion SPF 60+
  • Neutrogena® Pure & Free® Baby Sunscreen Lotion SPF 60+
  • Neutrogena® Pure & Free® Baby Faces Ultra Gentle Sunscreen
  • Neutrogena® Pure & Free® Baby Sunscreen Stick SPF 60

To find the sunscreen that best meets your individual eczema skin care needs, consider looking through the NEA Product Directory.

Keep those babies in the shade

Don’t forget that children under six months of age should have very limited exposure to the sun, as their skin is extremely sensitive to the sun’s rays and to the ingredients in sunscreen itself. Shade and protective clothing are the best ways to sun-proof your infant’s skin. But for the rest of us, sunscreen is a must.

Ready to head outside?

Sunscreen alone isn’t enough to protect your skin against ultraviolet rays. It’s just one part of a sun protection program that includes wearing protective clothing and staying out of direct sunlight between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., especially during the summer months.

So, choose, test and use sunscreen wisely, and from all of us at NEA, enjoy your summer in the sun. Your skin will thank you for it!

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