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Sensitive Skin & Sunscreen Allergy: What You Need to Know

Written by Andrew Le, MD

UpdatedMay 29, 2024

Sunscreen allergy is uncommon, affecting less than 1% of users. However, awareness of it is still important, as it can cause red, itchy, irritated skin when exposed to certain sunscreen ingredients.

This condition develops when your skin reacts negatively to ingredients in the sunscreen. It may arise over time, even if you don't have an allergy now.

This article covers sunscreen allergy symptoms, causes, treatments, alternatives, and how to choose the best sunscreen if you have an allergy. You'll also learn how to avoid triggering a reaction and properly care for your skin.

🔑 Key Takeaways

  • Sunscreen allergy is an uncommon allergy that occurs in less than 1% of its users.
  • The most common cause of sunscreen allergy is an allergic reaction to the active ingredients, such as avobenzone, oxybenzone, and octocrylene.
  • Contact dermatitis is a common reaction to sunscreen allergy and is more common in people with a history of eczema. Its symptoms are itch, blister, or hives.
  • The most accurate way to assess sunscreen allergy is a patch test because it exposes you to a small amount of allergens and provides reliable results on your reaction to them.
  • People with sensitive skin, eczema, a family history of skin problems, and chemical sensitivities are at higher risk of having or developing sunscreen allergy.
  • Your clothes are your first layer of protection from the sun; they cover your skin and minimize exposure to the sun's UV rays.
  • If you have a sunscreen allergy, you must choose allergy-friendly sunscreens because they contain ingredients that reduce the risk of allergic reactions.

What are Sunscreens?

Sunscreens are topical (applied on the skin) products designed to protect your skin from the sun's ultraviolet (UV) radiation, which is very harmful. They work by absorbing, reflecting, or scattering the UV rays and preventing them from penetrating the skin.

Sunscreens have different levels that are measured as SPF or Sun Protection Factor.

The following are the different SPFs and approximately how much they protect you from the sun:

  • SPF 15 protects against 93% of UVB rays
  • SPF 30 protects against 97% of UVB rays
  • SPF 50 protects against 98% of UVB rays
  • SPF 100 protects against 99% of UVB rays

Aside from protection against the sun's harmful UV rays, sunscreens also lower your risk of developing skin cancer, slow down your skin's aging process, and protect you from sunburn.

What is Sensitive Skin?

Sensitive skin is a condition where the skin is more prone to adverse reactions or discomfort when exposed to various environmental factors or skincare products. People with sensitive skin are more prone to stinging, itching, and other discomfort.

A recent study found that 71% of people have some level of skin sensitivity, an increase of 55% in just two decades.

Some sunscreens have powerful ingredients that may harm the skin, leaving those people with sensitive skin more prone to sunscreen allergies.

It is essential to be aware of your skin sensitivities and pay attention to the sunscreen you are using because your skin might be sensitive to the ingredients in those products.

What is Sunscreen Allergy?

Sunscreen allergy is an uncommon type of allergy that happens when your skin is sensitive to specific ingredients found in sunscreens. These ingredients can trigger an immune response, leading to skin irritation. In severe cases, sunscreen allergies can lead to anaphylaxis.

There are different ways your skin can react to sunscreen; below are some examples:

Contact Dermatitis

Contact dermatitis is a common reaction to sunscreen allergy. There are three types of contact dermatitis that can happen when a person is sensitive to one or more ingredients in sunscreen:

a. Irritant contact dermatitis is the most common type, although it is a nonallergic skin reaction. Irritant contact dermatitis results in redness, burning, and discomfort on the part of the skin where sunscreen is applied. Approximately 80% of contact dermatitis is irritant contact dermatitis.

b. Allergic contact dermatitis occurs when a person has developed a sensitivity to one or more ingredients found in sunscreens. Itching, blisters, and rash can develop within areas where sunscreen is applied, and may even spread to other sites. Allergic contact dermatitis occurs in up to one in five people.

c. Photocontact Dermatitis is a rare type of contact dermatitis that occurs when the sunscreen applied to the skin gets exposed to the sun's UV rays. The response can look like a severe sunburn or eczema and usually happens in places such as:

  • Face
  • Arms
  • Back of the hands
  • Chest
  • Lower neck

Signs and Symptoms of Sunscreen Allergy

You may have allergies to sunscreen when you experience any of the following after application of sunscreen or exposure to the sun after application:

  • Redness
  • Itching
  • Burning sensation
  • Swelling
  • Blisters
  • Rash
  • Hives
  • Peeling
  • Anaphylaxis (rare)

Even if you initially do not have a sunscreen allergy, you may develop it over the years and experience these symptoms.

Causes of Sunscreen Allergy

Both chemical and physical sunscreens can trigger a sunscreen allergy, although chemical sunscreens are more likely to. Chemical sunscreens are absorbed, where physical sunscreens remain on the skin. The active ingredients that commonly cause allergic reactions are the following:

  • Avobenzone
  • Oxybenzone
  • Octocrylene
  • Octinoxate
  • Octisalate

According to studies released by the FDA, all the above ingredients are extensively absorbed into the body after just one application.

Oxybenzone and Avobenzone are both known to disrupt the hormones in our body. Additionally, Avibezone can damage the liver, kidneys, and nervous system.

Another study published in 2020 found that some sunscreen ingredients such as oxybenzone and octinoxate, have been discovered in blood plasma, urine, and breast milk, so pregnant women should use caution when selecting sunscreens and research ingredients carefully.

Aside from the active ingredients in sunscreen, fragrances and preservatives may also trigger an allergic reaction. This may be good reason to consider using unscented products.

Diagnosing Sunscreen Allergy

There are many ways to effectively diagnose sunscreen allergy and determine which ingredient in your sunscreen causes an allergic reaction.

1. Patch Test

The most accurate way to assess for sunscreen allergy is a patch test. Dermatologists and allergists frequently use patch testing to identify the allergen responsible for contact dermatitis or other allergic skin disorders.

During the procedure, the healthcare provider will apply a small amount of various sunscreen ingredients, like oxybenzone, into tiny patches placed on your back. The patches are typically worn for 48 hours, during which time you will be advised to avoid activities that could result in excessive perspiration or water exposure. The examiner will thereafter view your skin for evidence of reaction.

You can also do a self-test when trying out a new sunscreen, by applying a small amount to your skin and observing for a reaction. Although it will not tell you which specific ingredient you are allergic to, it will help you determine if your skin is compatible with the sunscreen you intend to use.

2. Prick Test

Although the prick test is not commonly used to diagnose sunscreen allergy, it is one of the common ways to test other types of allergies. In a prick test, the nurse/doctor will prick the skin with an applicator with a small amount of allergen.

The healthcare provider will wait for about 15-20 minutes and observe for skin changes. Development of a small, itchy bump resembling a mosquito bite, at the site where the skin was pricked, is indicative of an allergy.

A professional healthcare provider should only do the patch and prick tests. Avoid buying home test kits which may be inaccurate and more importantly, potentially cause adverse reactions.

What to Do If a Sunscreen Allergy Develops?

If you put on sunscreen and it causes an undesired reaction that shows the symptoms of a sunscreen allergy, here’s what you should do:

  • Step 1: Rinse off the sunscreen with cool water.
  • Step 2: After rinsing, you may also use a cold compress to relieve the pain, itching, or inflammation.
  • Step 3: Apply unscented moisturizers, lotions, or petroleum jelly to moisturize the skin.

A doctor may recommend taking an antihistamine to help the allergic reaction resolve. It is also important to stay out of the sun until your skin has healed.

When to See a Doctor?

When you experience a mild or moderate reaction to sunscreen, you may consult your dermatologist or allergist for evaluation and treatment advice.

However, you should call 911 or your emergency hotline if you are experiencing a severe allergic reaction that shows symptoms of anaphylaxis.

Here are the common symptoms of anaphylaxis:

How to Care for Your Skin if You Have Sunscreen Allergy

If you have a sunscreen allergy, there are many ways to take care of your skin and avoid triggering an allergic reaction.

Below are tips on ways you can better care for your skin regardless of whether you have a sunscreen allergy or not.

Find the Right Sunscreen for You

Sunscreens are made differently with regard to formulation and ingredients. Whether you have a sunscreen allergy or not, finding a sunscreen compatible with your skin type is essential.

Here are tips that you can use to find the right sunscreen for you:

  1. Choose a sunscreen formulated for your skin type: If your skin is sensitive, consider a sunscreen that is best for sensitive skin. Look for sunscreens labeled as "hypoallergenic" or "for sensitive skin." If you have oily skin, choose light-weight sunscreens or ones labeled “oil-free.” If you are choosing sunscreen for your kids, choose one for their age. And finally, if you are pregnant, consider sunscreens for pregnant women.
  2. Opt for physical sunscreens: Physical sunscreens provide a physical barrier on the skin. The main ingredients in physical sunscreens are titanium and zinc oxide, which are less likely to cause allergic reactions. On the other hand, chemical sunscreens contain ingredients that absorb UV radiation. The main ingredients in chemical sunscreens are avobenzone, octinoxate, and oxybenzone.
  3. Read the ingredients list: If you have sensitive skin, avoid using sunscreen with the ingredients mentioned earlier that may cause allergies.
  4. Avoid fragrances: Sunscreens with added fragrance may cause allergic reactions. Opt to choose fragrance-free or unscented sunscreens and other skincare products.
  5. Consider conducting a patch test first: To avoid a potential reaction, apply a small patch of the sunscreen on an area of skin before applying it more widely. Wait a few minutes and see if the sunscreen will cause undesired reactions
  6. Consult a Dermatologist or Allergist: If you have a history of skin allergies or sensitivities and are unsure about which sunscreen to use, consult a dermatologist or allergist. They can perform patch testing and recommend suitable sunscreen options.

Sunscreen Suggestions

There are a variety of sunscreens on the market targeted for different populations. It’s essential to find the best sunscreen that suits you. Below are some suggestions on sunscreens to consider:

For Pregnant Women
For Children
For Sensitive Skin

✅ Pro tip

Wear your sunscreen no matter what the weather is. UV rays are present even during cloudy or rainy days.

Alternative Ways to Protect Yourself from the Sun

Protecting yourself from the sun involves more than just using sunscreen. Here are alternative ways to shield yourself from the sun's harmful UV radiation:

  1. Wear proper clothing: Your clothes are your first layer of protection from the sun. On a sunny day, you can wear long-sleeved shirts, hats, or pants. Darker-colored clothes also offer more protection compared to light-colored clothes. Some clothing brands also offer UV-protective garments that are certified to work.
  2. Avoid going out during peak sun hours: The sun’s peak hours may differ depending on where you live. Peak hours are usually between 9 am-4 pm. Avoid staying too long outside during these hours of the day.
  3. Seek shade: Always bring an umbrella and use it when walking outside, especially during peak sun hours. Wear your sunglasses too to protect your eyes.
  4. Install Window Film or Shades: Consider applying window film or using shades with UV protection in your car and home to reduce UV exposure.
  5. Stay Informed About UV Index: Check the UV Index in your area to know how strong the UV radiation is for the day. Adjust your sun protection measures accordingly on high UV index days.

💡 Fun Fact

Sun-protective clothing, often labeled with UPF (Ultraviolet Protection Factor), can block harmful UV radiation. It's like wearing sunscreen but in the form of clothing.

Final Thoughts

Sunscreen allergy is a rare type of allergy that occurs because of a person’s sensitivity to the ingredients present in sunscreens. The most common ingredients in sunscreens that cause allergic reactions are avobenzone, octinoxate, and oxybenzone.

Choosing the best sunscreen that suits your skin type and the best sunscreen for sun allergy is essential. Aside from sunscreens, you may also protect yourself from harmful UV rays by using alternative options such as umbrellas, shades, long-sleeve shirts, and hats, as well as checking your area’s UV index.

It’s important to recognize sunscreen allergy symptoms and consult your doctor if there is concern of an allergic reaction.

FAQs on Sunscreen Allergy

Can I still go outside if I am allergic to sunscreen?

You can still go outside if you have a sunscreen allergy, but you must apply alternative ways to protect yourself from the sun. Consult a dermatologist for personalized advice on managing your sunscreen allergy.

What are the risks of not using sunscreen?

Not using sunscreen can increase your risk of sunburn, skin aging, and skin cancer. Prolonged exposure to the sun without protection exposes your skin to harmful UV radiation, damaging skin cells and DNA, potentially leading to skin cancer.

Is there a cure for a sunscreen allergy?

There is no cure for a sunscreen allergy, but management involves identifying the specific allergen and avoiding products containing that ingredient. You can consult a dermatologist for patch testing to pinpoint the allergen and select alternative sunscreens that are less likely to trigger sunscreen allergy symptoms.