What's the best high-SPF cream for a sensitive face?
June 27, 2014 4:44 AM   Subscribe

I need a facial sunscreen - but everything I try makes my make-up melt off or give me spots. Any suggestions?

At the moment, I'm using Clinique's Superdefense cream, but that only comes in SPF20. As I take Seroquel and am fair skinned - and have taken up swimming somewhere with an outdoor pool - I think I need more than this for the summer. However, my face is sensitive even though my body is happy with every sunscreen I've tried. I get both dry patches and occasional breakouts - and as I also suffer with dermatillomania, I really don't want the temptation to pick at my skin.

So far I've tried La Roche-Posay Anthelios 50 gel-creme, which made my foundation go melty and peculiar, and Simple Illuminating Face Cream and Avene Hydrance Optimale, which made me break out. Usually silicones make my skin develop many many whiteheads (so I don't use a primer), but I'm not sure what else would be likely to have an effect on my skin. Cleansing thoroughly doesn't seem to help. Aside from the annoyance of break-outs, the cost of trying out products is adding up too.

I wear make-up everyday for work - usually Revlon Colorstay or Lancome Teint Idole Ultra, both of which have SPF15, but I'm not sure this is enough in combination with the SPF20 moisturiser. The Clinique moisturiser seems to agree with me, but it's getting hotter and I'm going to be spending more time outdoors, so I want to make sure my face isn't going to burn off. Any suggestions? I'm UK-based, so no Neutrogena etc here.
posted by mippy to Health & Fitness (33 answers total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
I've been buying Neutrogena and L'Oreal sunscreen products from eBay for years - no particular seller, whoever has the best price.

At the moment, I'm using Neutrogena Ultra Sheer SPF50+. It dries to a matte, slightly powdery (in texture, not appearance) finish. It doesn't make my makeup melty at all, and I have an oily t-zone in a hot climate. I'd highly recommend it (and I agree that SPF15 is not enough).
posted by Salamander at 5:00 AM on June 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

A dermatologist recommended Elta MD facial sunscreens to me a few years ago and I've been happy with them ever since.
posted by telegraph at 5:03 AM on June 27, 2014 [4 favorites]

p.s. PM me if you'd like some seller recommendations, and I'll dig through my email and find some. I know my most recent batch shipped from California, and I've bought from Hong Kong a couple of times with no problems.
posted by Salamander at 5:03 AM on June 27, 2014

Seconding Neutrogena Ultra Sheer.

I have very sensitive skin plus I hatehatehate greasy anything and even after going for a run this doesn't feel drippy or gross. I've had no problems with breakouts or any other skin-related problems. I also have the same problems with silicone products that you do.

It also happens to be the only tube of sunscreen I ever finished and had to replace.
posted by Room 641-A at 5:46 AM on June 27, 2014 [4 favorites]

Seconding Elta MD, also check out Paula's Choice SPF 50.
posted by sonmi at 5:58 AM on June 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

Nthing Elta MD. Lots of people particularly like the UV Clear version. Personally, I have never once found a sunscreen that doesn't cause problems for me, but this seems to be the least problematic.
posted by thegreatfleecircus at 6:02 AM on June 27, 2014


Are you asking for facial moisturizer that has is higher than SPF20?
Are you asking for a sunblock you can use on your face with an SPF20 that you will use alongside your moisturizer and makeup?
posted by hal_c_on at 6:09 AM on June 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

I've never had any luck finding a perfect, outdoor activity-appropriate face sunscreen that also works with makeup. I would suggest continuing to use what you have that works as a moisturizer under your makeup, and then adding a stronger sunscreen just for your outdoor swims. Presumably this would get washed off during/after your swim anyway? And then you can re-apply the SPF moisturizer, makeup, etc and be on your way.
posted by Jemstar at 6:20 AM on June 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

I love Kiehls Fluid UV Defence, though lately I've been using good old Clinique City Block under a schmear of MAC BB cream, which has been good everyday wear in the milquetoast Dutch sunshine.

You could also try topping up your sunscreen during the day using Peter Thomas Roth powder sunscreen, which I adore and ran out of and want and miss.
posted by nerdfish at 6:22 AM on June 27, 2014

Just came in to recommend Clinique City Block. It comes in SPF25 and 40, you can use it over your moisturiser and under foundation. It's oil free (as far as I remember). Also make sure you give your moisturiser a good fifteen minutes to sink in before applying sunscreen and same again between sunscreen and foundation to help avoid "slip".
posted by billiebee at 6:25 AM on June 27, 2014 [3 favorites]

It costs approximately one million dollars, but Shiseido's Ultimate Sun Protection for Face is the best sunscreen I've ever tried. It's similar to the Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Dry-Touch that others are recommending in many ways, but the Neutrogena made my eyes red and watery and the Shiseido doesn't.

It's also "very water resistant" which means that when it's hot as balls you won't sweat it off.

I don't wear make-up, so I'm not sure if it will react strangely, but the sunscreen dries very quickly and leaves my skin feeling a bit like I had applied powder, so I expect it would work well?
posted by AmandaA at 6:27 AM on June 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

Clinique City Block is not bad & comes in SPF25 and 40 if I'm not mistaken. It has some color to it like a foundation.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 6:40 AM on June 27, 2014

Chemical sunscreens make my skin break and out sting, so I've had to stick to physical only. I'm currently using Vanicream (UK Amazon link) over a moisturizer, and while it's a little thick (but not greasy), I've had no skin issues whatsoever. I don't wear a lot of make-up, but concealer seems to work fine over it.
posted by umwhat at 6:53 AM on June 27, 2014

My understanding is that SPF refers to the amount of time sunscreen lasts in direct sunlight and not necessarily the amount of protection. (Cites: webmd, Paula Begoun, American Melanoma Foundation). Basically 30 spf is plenty as long as you reapply frequently enough. The major shortfalls in sunscreen use:

-sunscreen that has a high spf but not actually sufficient uvb protection.
-not applying enough sunscreen or reapplying frequently enough (often related to buying expensive sunscreen that one is reluctant to use liberally.

Sensitivity to sunscreen is often related to chemical sunscreen ingredients. My face can tolerate some but really doesn't like avobenzone and will eventually get irritated even with others.

I would look for a physical sunscreen SPF 30, and reapply frequently, especially when you are out doors.

Physical sunblock ingredients (look for these): Titanium dioxide (TiO2), Zinc oxide (ZnO)

Chemical sunscreen ingredients (try avoiding these, see if it helps with the sensitivity and marks): Octylcrylene, Avobenzone, Octinoxate, Octisalate, Oxybenzone, Homosalate, Helioplex, 4-MBC, Mexoryl SX and XL, Tinosorb S and M, Uvinul T 150, Uvinul A Plus

(From skinacea.com)

This Paula Begoun article talks about sunscreen in general and specifically has tips for applying sunscreen under makeup:
This is helpful Q&A.

I generally really like Paula's Choice products. Here are three with SPF 30 and all physical sunscreens: Skin Recovery Daily Moisturizing Lotion SPF 30, Resist Super-Light Wrinkle Defense SPF 30, Hydralight Shine-Free Mineral Complex SPF 30.

If your budget is lower and/or you just want a simple sunscreen, here are some that I had bookmarked in her beautypedia resource: Alba Botanica Very Emollient Sunscreen Mineral Protection Fragrance Free SPF 30, Kiss My Face Kids Natural Mineral Sunscreen Broad Spectrum SPF 30. Beautypedia is pretty search-friendly so you can find more options there too.
posted by Salamandrous at 7:01 AM on June 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

On makeupalley.com Biore UV Aqua Rich Watery Essence has a 4.4/5 rating, "84% would buy again." Japanese import. I think you can buy it on sasa.com? And eBay. Reviews on amazon.com. I like it a lot.

I have some skin cancer on my face (and elsewhere!) so I am really all about the sunblock now, and I can't say anything has been a great mix with regular foundations. I use the Teint Idole too. Less and less now with the more consistent sunblock use... I have had good results using powder foundation over sunblock. Highly recommended: Korres Wild Rose Mineral Foundation SPF 30. Review on paulaschoice.com. Other similar ones I tried came out chalky and odd but the Korres sinks right in and disappears (in a useful way, I mean; it does what one wants foundation to do).
posted by kmennie at 7:04 AM on June 27, 2014

Wear a hat, future you will thank you.
posted by 445supermag at 7:04 AM on June 27, 2014

It's possible that your reaction is being caused by the sunscreen chemicals themselves. After a lot of trial and error involving tinted moisturizer with SPF, I finally realized I can't use products containing avobenzone because they destroy my skin. It's either pimples or eczema, neither of which is a nice look.

Please note that it's a bad idea to mix multiple different products containing sunscreen, because they can actually interfere with one anothers' effectiveness. For example, mineral sunscreens can destabilize avobenzone! From this site: "When you start mixing sunscreens on your skin, you are creating an entirely new formulation which may be much less effective than you think. Adding an SPF 30 to an SPF 15 does not make a 45 – it might make a 3!"

I don't know about UK availability, but... I use two facial sunscreens right now. One is a Tarte tinted moisturizer that seems to be discontinued; their new Amazonizan Clay BB Cream seems to be more or less the same product and is still avobenzone-free. The other is Olay Complete All Day Moisturizer With Sunscreen SPF 30, which I use basically every day on my face and chest. I also have a Korres Wild Rose Mineral Foundation SPF 30 that is... way more effective, actually, than I had ever expected.
posted by Andrhia at 7:06 AM on June 27, 2014

I also recommend d the Elta MD, especially the UV Clear 46. It really works, isn't shiny or greasy, and doesn't break me out. I don't wear foundation so can't specifically speak to that.
posted by HotToddy at 7:43 AM on June 27, 2014

I really like Andalou Naturals SPF 30 Beauty Balm. Non-whitening, non-greasy, mattifying. You can get it at Whole Foods… plus it's a physical blocker (titanium dioxide), not chemical.
posted by airguitar2 at 7:48 AM on June 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

Some background: I have pale Irish skin, am generally super dry with a normal-to-oily t-zone, have rosacea, AND insane sensitivity to products.. I get a painful, tight, bumpy rash if I so much as think about trying something new. My skin hates most silicone primers and almost all foundations. The Neutrogena sunscreen mentioned above bummed out my situation pretty hardcore and feels both greasy and sandy to me, on both body and face. I've tried a few times over the years because I'm attracted to that SPF 80, but my visage just isn't having it. It's gross to me.

COTZ (the brand name stands for Contains Only Titanium and Zinc) for face has changed my life. It is silky, matte-ifying, and universally tinted. It looks muddy brown in the tube but matches my skintone perfectly, and I'm pretty pale. It's SPF 40 and $20 at Ulta and some drugstores. It feels like a silicone primer, but doesn't freak my skin out. Since I've started using it, my face has evened out in both texture and tone, and I'm no longer using TM or foundation to cover redness. It's THAT awesome.

(Tip for other ladies of rosacea- the zinc in the formula is fantastic at calming outbreaks!)
posted by ElectricGoat at 8:12 AM on June 27, 2014 [6 favorites]

COTZ (the brand name stands for Contains Only Titanium and Zinc) for face has changed my life.

Not to derail too much, but I'm intrigued by your description! Are you using the regular version or the one for sensitive skin?
posted by Room 641-A at 8:20 AM on June 27, 2014

The brand in and of itself was created especially for sensitive skin. My tube says "for sensitive skin" on it but to my knowledge there is only one COTZ face forumulation available. I've only ever seen one product for face out on the shelves, and two for (I assume "everywhere"). Maybe check their website? My work connection isn't loading their page for me.
posted by ElectricGoat at 8:37 AM on June 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

I was looking for a face sunscreen that provided a lot of protection and didn't feel disgusting and greasy, and I really love SkinCeuticals Physical Fusion UV Defense SPF 50. It's a physical sunscreen so it may not irritate your skin as much as the chemical kind.

It has a little it of tint to it, which concerned me since I'm really pale, but it blends in so you don't even notice. I have dryer skin, so I use a moisturizer in combination with it.
posted by thejanna at 8:43 AM on June 27, 2014

Response by poster: Thanks for the responses so far!

I looked at City Block but the tint is too dark for me. I am very pale - in MAC terms I'd be about NW13. None of the Clinique foundations are even light enough for me.

Tarte isn't too easy to get here - I can order online from Sephora, but then they add on £10 shipping, our 20% sales tax and import duties, so it's only worth it if I were to buy a few things at once. (I think QVC might do it now but as a limited range. Annoying, as I would like to try their foundation.) It's not really viable to buy US only products unless they can be shipped to me cheaply - not until we eventually go over to visit in the next few years. I can't order from Ulta or Target, for example.

What's the difference between physical and chemical? I know you've given the ingredients, but what is meant by the two categories? Until recently SPF was something only bought here if you were going on holiday to Spain, so we're a bit behind on our suncream knowledge.
posted by mippy at 8:47 AM on June 27, 2014

My skin is freakily sensitive and so pale it glows. Plus, I live in Southern California where the sun says burn baby burn. In my experience, SPF matters (obviously) but not as much as whether or not the sunscreen breaks down quickly. Most of us do not reapply sunscreen several times each day. Your sunscreen probably needs to continue protecting from morning until you remove your makeup to reapply.

I like COTZ for days at the office, but my experience with it on sweat/swim days is that it just doesn't stay on. Lovely product but the protection is gone by midday. For whatever reason, Ocean Potion products are fine for me - which is weird since my skin reacts to nearly everything. I like Face Potion SPF 45 and Protect & Renew Face (SPF 35). Both stay on the job all day and are practically unbudgeable by sea and sweat.

Now, let me boast about a cheap, emergency sunscreen for times when you can't reapply lotion but you need to be in heavy sun. e.l.f. Studio SPF 45 Sunscreen UVA/UVB Protection Powder The product says it's "medium" color, but I can wear it and I'm super fair. It's Titanium Dioxide (23.3%) Zinc Oxide (18.7%). It's easy to apply over makeup with a kabuki brush and it's a rock star of sun protection. (This is what I take to Mexico because it's just so good.)
posted by 26.2 at 9:03 AM on June 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: I've seen the powder before - you can't get it here, even though ELF have their own site. I wonder why that is?

With swimming, I tend to go during my lunch hour, and because I'm dead lazy and have the right eyemakeup, I don't reapply my make-up. It's also REALLY hot on public transport at this time of year, so sweaty face might be a factor too. If I put sunscreen on, it needs to be on all day - either because I'm covering it with cosmetics, or because it's the weekend and I'm doing other stuff and I'll forget to put more on. Just like you say - it's not practical for most of us to constantly reapply.
posted by mippy at 9:27 AM on June 27, 2014

I have sensitive, very pale skin and have been happy with the Aveeno BB cream (SPF 30). The tint (fair-to-light) is a bit darker than my skin but it looks fine when rubbed in.

I would really recommend reapplying pretty much any sunscreen after swimming, though, if you intend to be in the sun again in the afternoon. Even the waterproof ones tend to lose their protection pretty easily. If you're using a tinted moisturizer, reapplication takes 10 seconds and you don't need to worry about putting foundation over it, which is nice.
posted by randomnity at 9:44 AM on June 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

mippy, this should answer your question about physical and chemical sunscreens.
posted by peripathetic at 10:33 AM on June 27, 2014

It costs approximately one million dollars, but Shiseido's Ultimate Sun Protection for Face is the best sunscreen I've ever tried.

Every other facial sunscreen I've tried that's more than SPF15 has made me breakout except for Shiseido. It is very expensive, so I've taken to wearing a hat most days, and using it the few times a week I'm outside for long periods. I have brown skin, so I have yet to find a physical sunblock that doesn't make me look like a lazy mime (also the texture is kinda thick), but if you're very fair, they could be an option - I don't have skin problems with those.
posted by bluefly at 11:22 AM on June 27, 2014

FWIW, I used that Shiseido product until I found Ocean Potion. The Shiseido is a solid sunscreen - good coverage with minimal ghosting in daily wear. In photos where it was super ghosty for me. I did find it to be drying.
posted by 26.2 at 2:54 PM on June 27, 2014

I've recently begun using Vichy Capital Soleil spf50. It's a lightly teinted bb creme for normal to dry skin. I bicyle to work, but this one holds up well, even when sweating.
posted by mirthe at 8:35 AM on June 28, 2014

I have very pale, very sensitive skin combined with photosensitivity (so sunscreen is a big deal for me). I've been using Clarins UV Plus HP Day Screen High Protection Emulsion SPF 40 everyday for a year and a half and it's just wonderful. It's a light-weight, non-greasy physical sunscreen that I apply after moisturizer and before makeup.
posted by postpostpostscript at 10:44 AM on June 28, 2014

FWIW I'm also a MAC NW15 and super super pale and I've never had an issue with City Block - it's been my daily staple for a while now.
posted by nerdfish at 12:01 PM on June 28, 2014

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