Pros: no allergic reaction; works well
Cons: the price, although if you have allergies you won't care
It truly isn't fair. Sometimes life just deals you unfair blows, and this was one for me: I am pale and burn easily, and my skin is very sensitive to sunscreen! If I had to have pale skin, why couldn't it at least be easy to care for by accepting whatever sunscreen I slather over it? Or better yet, why couldn't I just be tan???
Skin type: extra-white
By being easy to burn, let's just say that walking to my car on my campus is enough to make my skin pink from the sun (and no, it's not from exertion!). I never turn "tan;" exposure to sun either makes me pink (light exposure) or red (burnt). I do have some freckles that will darken/brown a little with sun exposure, but the rest of my skin is white, pink, or red. Seriously. In my teen years I tried to tan by exposing my skin to the sun in small doses everyday, but I ended up with sun poisoning even though I was careful to not burn my skin. I have since abandoned my teen-dream of being gloriously tan, and now I want to protect my skin as much as possible from the sun.
Skin sensitivity: allergy-prone
When I say my skin is sensitive to sunscreen, I mean that I get puffy and swollen - not just annoying pimples, but a full-fledged allergic reaction. Years ago, this was not the case, but I guess over time I developed an allergy. My allergy first appeared during a ski trip about 5 years ago. Knowing how easily I burn, I generously slathered on sunscreen on my face. Later that day, my face was very red and slightly itchy. Stupidly, I thought that maybe the sunscreen didn't work (this was very stupid since I had no goggle lines - if the sun had made my skin red I would have had lines!!!), so the next day, I slathered on even more sunscreen in the morning, and took the bottle with me in order to reapply more often. Needless to say, this was not one of my brightest moments, and I paid for my lack of brainpower later. That evening my face was not only red, but it was swollen and itchy. As I complained about the ineffectiveness of my sunscreen, a more intelligent member of the ski party suggested that perhaps I was having an allergic reaction. Eureka! It was as if the light bulb really did appear in my noggin. At any rate, I discontinued using the sunscreen, but it was too late. Fortunately that was the last day of the ski trip, since the next day my face was so red and swollen that I can not express how scary I looked in the mirror, and my vision was even a little impaired because my eyes were almost swollen shut. At the time I was a student, so I dropped by the campus health clinic, and a kindly nurse instantly could see I was having an allergic reaction. She took me over to a doc, and I was given a steroidal-based med to fight the flaring allergic reaction. Relief fortunately came quickly.
Specific sensitivity: unknown
With the memories of my very large, red, itchy, swollen face still very clear, I am very careful about what I put on my face. After my sunscreen incident, I tested many products on the undersides of my arm to see if I had a reaction. I couldn't quite pinpoint which ingredient caused swelling. The combo of octyl methoxycinnamate and oxybenzone seems to give me the worst reaction, but only in waterproof formulas. I tried an alternate waterproof chemical sunscreen with ethylhexyl p-methoxycinnamate instead, and I did not get a reaction with my spot test. I put just a tiny dot on my cheek to test, and my eyes burned and watered horribly, although this time my skin did not swell. Watery, burning eyes was not the solution I was seeking. Although I could still use a non-waterproof sunscreen, for active days a waterproof sunscreen is a necessity for a fair-skinned person like myself, and I really didn't want to use zinc oxide (the really thick white stuff sometimes lifeguards put on their nose).
Solution: titanium dioxide
Every since my sensitivity became apparent, I always check out the sunscreen aisle whenever I'm at the drugstore, hoping to spot a new product. About 3 years ago, I found my sunscreen solution: titanium dioxide. Titanium dioxide is considered a non-chemical means of sun protection. It actually works by creating a physical barrier between your skin and the sun. The best part is that if you have sensitive skin or allergies, you are very unlikely to have a reaction with titanium dioxide. Additionally, titanium dioxide just happens to be wonderful at blocking both UVA & UVB rays. Hooray for me!
Initially I made my titanium dioxide discovery by spotting PreSun Sensitive Skin Sunblock SPF 28. This product unfortunately is not always easy to find. While hoping to find a new tube of PreSun, I then discovered Neutrogena's Sensitive Skin Sunblock SPF 17. The Neutrogena product is stocked by all the drug stores that I frequent. I also noticed recently that Neutrogena has a higher SPF version (28 or 30) but I haven't tried that one yet.
Smell, Texture, and Application
Neutrogena Sensitive Skin Sunblock is fragrance-free as well as being free of chemical sunscreens. It does have an odor but it is not strong even if it is not particularly appetizing (no coconut smells here); the smell reminds me of some other fragrance-free products I have tried. It is moderately thick, and even when you rub it in well it leaves a very slightly white residue. It also makes my skin look a bit like I have put on some type of face powder since it gives it a slightly white matte look. The whitish cast is not that noticeable, and the sunscreen stays pretty "matte" looking even though my T-zone gets a bit oily. Fortunately, it does not make me break out with acne even though it is pretty thick.
I am very satisfied with the sunblock capabilities of Neutrogena Sensitive Skin Sunscreen. Even though it is not labeled as waterproof, it does hold up well to minor water activities or sweating. It's perfect for a day outdoors. I do reapply if I've sweat a lot as a precaution, but it does not go on well to wet skin so I do have to pat my skin with a towel before attempting to reapply. So far, I've had no reaction at all to my skin or even my eyes (and I do apply around my eyes).
Comparison to PreSun Sensitive Skin Sunblock SPF 28
If you can find the PreSun product and have a choice, I'll share with you the differences in the products. Obviously the label gives away the most important difference - it is SPF 28 and the Neutrogena is SPF 17. The PreSun product contains more than twice the amount of titanium dioxide to achieve the higher SPF, and as a result it is even thicker than the Neutrogena product. PreSun is also labeled as waterproof for 80 minutes or longer. It is more "matte" and requires a little more rubbing to get it to be almost invisible (it still leaves the faint white cast). It is also fragrance free and non-irritating. When I don't feel I need the greater SPF protection or a super-waterproof sunscreen, I do prefer the lighter feel of the Neutrogena. I like both products and would recommend that fair-skinned or sensitive-skinned folks consider keeping both around for flexibility in SPF protection.
I still occasionally do spot tests just to see if my sensitivity will go away (yeah right) or if I am now sensitive to other ingredients. Originally I had no skin reaction to waterproof sunscreens containing ethylhexyl p-methoxycinnamate, but now my skin starts burning almost immediately and I do develop swelling after a couple of hours. I am also sensitive to waterproof sunscreens containing Parsol (avobenzolene). Part of my sensitivity could be due to the fact that I always use SPF 15 or greater sunscreen; higher SPFs mean that a larger concentration of chemical sunscreen is necessary. I still am not sensitive to the non-waterproof sunscreens I have tried.
Neutrogena Sensitive Skin Sunblock SPF 17
Active Ingredients: Titanium Dioxide (7.2%)
Inactive Ingredients: Purified Water, Octyl Palmitate, Stearyl Dimethicone, Dimethicone, Octyl Dodecyl Neopentanoate, Cyclomethicone, Isoeicosane, Polyglyceryl-4 Isostearate, Cetyl Dimethicone Copolyol, Hexyl Laurate, Cetyl Ricinoleate, Isododecane, Hydrolyzed Soy Protein, Shea Butter Unsaponifiables, Aluminum Hydroxide, Iron Hydroxide, Stearic Acid, Sodium Chloride, Diazolidinyl Urea, Methylparaben, Ethylparaben, Propylparaben
PreSun Sensitive Sunblock SPF 28
Active Ingredients: Titanium Dioxide (16% w/w)
Inactive Ingredients: Aluminum Hydroxide, BHT, C12-15 Alcohols Benzoate, Benzyl Alcohol, Cetyl Dimethicone Copolyol, Diazolidinyl Urea, Hexyl Laurate, Lauric Acid, Magnesium Stearate, Magnesium Sulfate, Octyldodecyl neopentanoate, Phenyl Trimethicone, Polyglyceryl-4 Isostearate, Sodium Chloride, Water
Neutrogena Sensitive Skin Sunblock SPF 17: $7.99 for 4 oz
PreSun Sensitive Sunblock SPF 28: $8.99 for 3.5 oz