SkinCeuticals Sheer Physical UV Defense SPF 50 provides lightweight coverage with zinc oxide. Photo courtesy of SkinCeuticals

Once upon a time, there was a girl who couldn't wear sunscreen without breaking out in a face full of annoying pimples.

For someone as paranoid as she was about UV-induced wrinkles and sunspots, this presented quite a conundrum. How was she to wear daily sunscreen, as recommended by every dermatologist in the kingdom, if they made her have a pizza face?

Yes, the girl is me (duh). But I didn't always realize that sunscreen was to blame for my skin woes.

It's been a long, hard road to get to this point. Here's why: I happen to be intolerant to products that contain avobenzone, a common chemical sunscreen. Since avobenzone provides good UVA coverage without white residue, most of the daily moisturizers with broad-spectrum SPF contain it. It also pops up a lot in makeup with SPF, like foundation and tinted moisturizer.

So for about 15 years (which is how long I've been dutifully applying daily sunscreen), I tried everything under the sun to get rid of my zits, including a strict regimen of all oil-free products, then regular holistic facials, followed by glycolic peels, prescription antibiotics, and even the mother of all acne-fighters, Accutane.


Last year I was doing research for a skincare article and mentioned to a scientist at a skincare lab that I can't figure out what causes my pimples. He suggested I stop using products with avobenzone, and I did. Lo and behold -- my "acne" cleared up in two days. Two days!

Apparently, intolerance to chemical sunscreens is quite common, although a face full of zits isn't always the symptom. According to Dr. Leslie Baumann, dermatologist and CEO of Baumann Cosmetic and Research Center, stinging and rashes can happen upon contact, or in some cases, not until you actually get in the sun.

[FYI -- Besides avobenzone, also known as Parsol 1789, there are several types of chemical sunscreens. Look on your SPF-containing product's ingredient list under "active ingredients." Anything that's not zinc oxide or titanium dioxide and sounds like a weird science word is probably a chemical sunscreen.]

"Methoxycinnamate makes many people -- including myself! -- get a rash upon sun exposure," explains Dr. Baumann. "This is called a photoallergic reaction because it only happens when you go in the sun. Benzophenones can also cause allergy, and Parsol (avobenzone) stings many people."

Dermatologist Dr. Heather Woolery-Lloyd explained to me that true sunscreen allergies are rare, but can occur. "Irritation from sunscreen such as mild stinging around the eyes that subsides quickly is likely just an irritant reaction and not a true allergy. If you have significant redness, itching, bumps, or patches and it does not subside then you may be truly allergic."

Unfortunately, both docs agree that besides a (semi-complicated) allergy test at a doctor's office, there isn't a surefire way to pinpoint your own intolerance without good old fashioned trial and error.

As for me, to complicate matters even more, Dr. Baumann told me it probably isn't the actual avobenzone (she's never seen anything published about avobenzone causing acne) that is causing my pimples, but a carrier ingredient. Either way it means I can't use products with it.

If you have consistently irritated skin, or a face full of pimples you can't explain, it's definitely worth a little experiment with sunscreens that use physical blockers instead of chemical.

Dr. Baumann's website Skin Type Solutions has a handy quiz to help you determine what type of sunscreen you should look for.

"Physical blockers such as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide do not cause allergic reactions," explains Dr. Woolery-Lloyd. Not to mention the fact that zinc oxide is the best UVA/UVB protector available according to the EPA, and physical blockers don't break down as easily in the sun as chemical ingredients do, which means they also offer protection for longer.

Although I was thrilled to have cleared up my face, it left me with a problem. What sunscreen should I wear every day? The problem with physical blockers is that they're generally known to be thick and paste-y.

I looked long and hard to put together a list of 10 great non-chemical sunscreens for all you sensitive-skinned folks out there. These sunscreens all use zinc oxide or a combination of zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. And if you have any personal recommendations, leave a comment below and tell me!

Shop the selection of sensitive sunscreens in the gallery above.