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‘I Have Sensitive Skin. Can I Skip Sunscreen in the Winter?’

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photo: Getty Images

Dear Beauty Editor,

Can you be honest with me about sunscreen? I have a five- to seven-minute commute every morning by car, I’m in an office building all day and not near windows. My commute home is another car ride. In the winter, I only see daylight in the morning. On a day when I know I’m not going to go outside except for my commute, how important is it that I wear sunscreen? My skin is very irritated by wearing it every day. 

xx Amanda

A very enthusiastic facialist once told me that if there’s enough light to see, you need sunscreen. But when I mentioned that advice to Carmen Castilla, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist at New York Dermatology Group and a clinical instructor at Mount Sinai Hospital, she basically instructed me, in the most doctorly way possible, to chill. “If you’re in a windowless room with light sources other than the sun, we don’t yet have evidence that sunscreen will provide any appreciable benefit,” she says.

When should I use sunscreen?

When sunlight enters the equation — even through a car window, even for a few minutes on a cloudy day in winter — wearing sunscreen is a good idea. Why? The sunlight that reaches Earth delivers (invisible) UV radiation in the form of UVA rays, which age skin, and UVB rays, which tan and burn skin. Exposure to both types of rays can cause skin damage that may lead to the formation of skin cancer, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. So, if you want to decrease your chances of developing skin cancer, wear sunscreen (SPF 30 or higher) when you’re exposed to sunlight.

Let’s say you’re not worried about cancer, but you want to do everything you can to keep your skin looking smooth and unblemished so you can age as gracefully as possible. In that case, it’s even more important to wear sunscreen. The SPF acts as an insurance policy that allows your skin, and skin care, to work better. (Wearing sunscreen daily can even reduce signs of photoaging, likely because it allows your skin to repair itself more effectively.) So it makes no sense to use any other type of skin care — whether it’s to treat acne, soothe sensitive skin, or prevent things like spots and lines — if you’re not wearing sunscreen.

Is mineral sunscreen … better?

For those who don’t know, mineral sunscreens (often called physical sunscreens) protect your skin with the ingredients titanium dioxide and/or zinc oxide. Dr. Castilla says that, in general, these sunscreen ingredients cause fewer reactions in patients with sensitive skin than the other (chemical) sunscreen ingredients, such as octocrylene or avobenzone. But it would be wrong to tell you mineral sunscreen is always better than chemical sunscreen if you have sensitive skin. That’s because it all depends on how your skin reacts to the entire formula, not just the sunscreen ingredients.

For that reason, Dr. Castilla also recommends looking for a formula that’s fragrance-free, contains moisturizing and calming ingredients, and absorbs easily, “minimizing the need to rub the skin.” The annoying thing is that the two physical sunscreen ingredients, titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, usually require more rubbing to disappear into skin, and, in some cases, no amount of rubbing will get them to disappear completely. But this list of the best sunscreens without a white cast includes several mineral options.

What’s the best face sunscreen for sensitive skin?

Sunscreen has come a long way in the past few years, and if you tried all the new products available, you’d probably be able to find one that doesn’t cause irritation. But I have sensitive skin and rosacea, and if some beauty editor told me to go put a bunch of random stuff on my face, I would be annoyed: Applying even the tiniest bit of a new product can set off a skin reaction, and then I have to wash it off, which usually makes my skin even redder and more sensitive. So, rather than telling you to try a bunch of new products at the store on the same day, my suggestion is to order a bunch of options that meet Dr. Castilla’s criteria — physical-sunscreen ingredients only, fragrance-free, with moisturizing and calming ingredients — and then test a new one every few days until you find a winner.

Dr. Castilla suggests Colorescience Sunforgettable Total Protection Face Shield, Eucerin Sensitive Mineral Sunscreen, La Roche-Posay Anthelios Mineral Ultra Light Face Sunscreen, and Avène Hydrance Moisturizing Sunscreen Lotion.

Julian Sass, Ph.D., a research and development specialist in the cosmetics industry, who has compiled a database of hundreds of sunscreens, has two mineral-only suggestions: Cotz Flawless Complexion (“It comes in two tints that cover a wide variety of skin tones,” he says) and Murad City Skin Age Defense Broad Spectrum, which costs more than the Cotz but has a nicer finish, according to Sass.

And I would add two more options to the “please just try it” list: Eleven by Venus Williams Unrivaled Sun Serum, which won’t sting your skin or eyes even when you sweat, and the new Minu Brightening Sunscreen Minerals Broad Spectrum Gel-Cream, which is incredibly sheer and feels really soothing when I’m having a rosacea flare-up.

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‘I Have Sensitive Skin. Can I Skip the Sunscreen?’