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Oh My Goodness More SPF Talk: Slippery Sunblock and Burning Eyes

By Amalah

Hi Amy:
I have another sunscreen issue to ask about if you’re not too sick of the subject. Sunscreen is really important and I’m glad you take it seriously. Here’s my problem though. Any SPF higher than about 12 or 14 (either standalone or in foundation) burns my eyes after it has been on my face for a while. I don’t put the stuff on my eyelids or right into my eyes, but after a couple of hours, it is like it migrates down from my forehead and into my eyes and they start to sting really bad. Nothing helps except taking out my contact lenses and completely washing my face. That’s not especially practical at 10:00AM at the office or out hiking! Can I get by using the lower SPF? I think the recommended SPF is like 35 but there’s just no way I can wear that without being miserable for more than half the day. Are there any alternatives?

(The queue is JAM-PACKED with SPF questions right now, people. And since SPF has suddenly become my unofficial mission and purpose in life, right after “gestating a human being,” I feel compelled to answer as many of them as I can.)
(Next up in my battle against our nation’s crow’s feet: good, UV-blocking sunglasses.)
Stinging eyes is actually a pretty common problem — I get them myself if I find myself really sweating on a bad humid day around here, or if I’m out playing tennis or something. (And oh, YEAH, I play just so much tennis these days. Look! Here’s my racket, tucked into my belt in case I get challenged to a pick-up match on my way back to bed.) People with sensitive skin are even more prone to the stinging, even during normal, non-sweaty daily activities.
The culprit is a specific ingredient found in a lot of sunscreens: avobenzone. It’s a UVA-blocker found in “chemical” sunscreens (which absorb and dissipate radiation). And the most popular sunscreens today (including my favorite, Neutrogena Dry-Touch) are chemical sunscreens, because they absorb easily into skin without leaving a film. But even ones labeled “waterproof” or “sweatproof” can cause the stinging, if your skin is sensitive enough to avobenzone.
The other kind of sunscreen is a “physical” sunscreen — with just sits on your face and uses ingredients like zinc oxide or titanium dioxide to simply reflect light off your skin. Some of these are formulated better than others (think big obvious strips of white on your nose and face), but the sun protection is JUST as good as the chemical sunscreens. Or even better for people like you, since you’ll be able to use a higher SPF without the eye-stinging and face-washing.
So you CAN use SPF 30 or even higher, provided you spend a little time reading the ingredient lists. Physical sunscreens are often marketed as “natural” or “hypo-allergenic” sunscreens (although some “natural” brands, like Kiss My Face and Alba, do make versions with avobenzone, so always double-check). Try testing some out at your local Whole Foods or semi-crunchy beauty store and see if you can find one that is cosmetically pleasing to you. Hell, even Sephora has gotten on the natural/organic bandwagon and offers a small selection of chemical-free sun-protection products.
Another option: a better-quality kids’ sunblock. TONS of these are avobenzone-free, since kids tend to rub their faces and eyes a lot, and also designed to absorb quickly since small children on the beach are not known for their patience during sunblock applications.
So I’ve compiled a little list of avobenzone-free sunscreens for you — please note that I haven’t personally used any of these, so I’m not sure of the skin-clogging or invisibility index for them — but they are highly recommended for athletes who sweat a lot and for people with very sensitive skin and eyes. (A couple links go to, where you can also read reviews from actual users, which are pretty helpful for determining whether this is something you want on your face.)
, $15.49
SkinCeuticals Sport UV Defense SPF 45, $35
, $10.29
, $7.61 (I believe they make a higher-SPF version, though I couldn’t find it online.)
, $15.99
Juice Beauty SPF 30 Tinted Moisturizer, $29
Korres Watermelon Sunscreen Face Cream, SPF 30, $28
This is by no means an exhaustive list, because you are soooo not alone in the stinging problem. These creams should stay put and not irritate your eyes, so if you can find one that you can at least tolerate for using on your forehead, your days of 10 am face-washings should be behind you.

Related Articles:
How Often Should I Apply Sunscreen to My Face?
Wearing SPF to Bed = Do Not Want
Preemptive Strike: Should You Use Anti-Aging Products in Your Early 20s?

About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to [email protected].

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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  • qwyneth

    April 25, 2008 at 2:05 pm

    GASP! THANK YOU! I never knew why this was, but it drives me batty. I will pick up one of these sunscreens this weekend!

  • the ass editor

    April 25, 2008 at 2:47 pm

    In case you’re not into tinted moisturizer, Juice Beauty also makes a sheer SPF 30 moisturizer with physical sunblock:
    I tried a sample of it from Sephora, liked it, and almost bought it. It did leave slightly more of a white cast on my face than the others I tried…but all of those were chemical sunscreens and I think you’ll always get more white when you go with physical. I don’t have the stinging issue, so I went looking elsewhere for a SPF 30 moisturizer. I just ordered Estee Lauder’s DayWear Plus SPF 30
    (free shipping and offer code SPRING5 gets you a bonus that’s not advertised on the site!) but if I hadn’t found that I would have gone with the Juice Beauty. It felt light enough under makeup and didn’t smell too sunblocky.

  • niniswim04

    April 25, 2008 at 3:14 pm

    Thank you so so so much for the list of friendly sunscreens. Another big irritant in sunscreens (as I have learned the most difficult way possible) is PABA. The only other thing I can even think to add is that, for me anyways, a lot of the kids sunscreens irritated my skin anyways–a lovely rash all over my face. If the avobenzone-free stuff doesn’t work, the best thing to try is the sunscreens with only the physical sunblocks. I know Philosophy makes one, and Sephora has several. Sorry this is so long, but I can share my sunscreen knowledge!

  • Missy

    April 25, 2008 at 9:27 pm

    Alternatively, if you’re wearing a hat, there’s not much need for sunscreen on your forehead at all.

  • boofyq

    April 28, 2008 at 10:51 am

    Hooray… this totally answers the question I posed in the comments section the other day. The zinc oxide / titanium dioxide version of Neutrogena sunscreen I’ve been using for a few days feels GREAT on my skin (and eyes) — no stinging at all! I can has skin protecshun!
    FYI, I found the Blue Lizard / Baby Lizard in my local grocery store for a much better price than I could find anywhere else. And I checked the labeling — the adult version and baby version have identical ingredients, so I can use that on all of us.

  • TasterSpoon

    April 28, 2008 at 2:16 pm

    I am a HUGE fan of Kinesys sunscreen. It sprays on and stays on. I went to their web site and can’t find an ingredients list, but I haven’t experienced any eye-stinging from it (and I have from other sunscreens) over the course of hours of exercise/steamy weather. Possibly just because it stays put. It’s also totally invisible and oil free, and available fragrance free. Maybe a little shiny, though.
    I sound like such a shill, so I won’t even provide the link, but you can Google it. Looks like you can buy online, otherwise I think you can get it at sports stores. It’s not cheap, but a little bottle goes a surprisingly long way because you apply with a very light mist.

  • portia

    April 30, 2008 at 2:00 am

    Oh, thank goodness we’re talking about physical sunscreen! ‘Tis the season!
    I can’t wear chemical sunscreens on my face, regardless of migration issues. For a couple of years I’ve made do with the Olay Complete all-day moisture spf 15, which works fine throughout the winter, but now that the weather’s getting warmer I’m noticing more skin-sloughing. So I’m looking for a finer-processed physical sunscreen, something that’s a little nicer to my face.
    It’s helpful to know that we who cannot tolerate chemical sunscreens on our faces (though we love them elsewhere!) are often very, very pale, and with the right formulation, the physical sunscreens act very much like the light-bouncing powders! Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are just finely-ground light-reflecting minerals, and hey, if you’re already pale, they can look awesome on your skin.
    (Headed to Sephora this week!)

  • Laura

    December 7, 2008 at 5:38 pm

    My eyes have been irritated by sunscreens that don’t have avobenzone.