We all know that the sun rays are dangerous: they cause wrinkles, sun spots, uneven pigmentation and cancer. That’s why it is necessary to wear a good sunscreen every day to make sure our skin is protected against all this damage. But just like any other ingredient in beauty products, sunscreen agents can cause allergies too. And what can we do when this happens?
What are sunscreen allergies and who’s more at risk?
If you’re allergic to sunscreen, you’ll develop an itchy and blistering rash on your skin wherever you applied the sunscreen. This can occur for two reasons: your skin has come into contact with a substance that has triggered the reaction (contact dermatitis) or it can be a combination of the sunscreen and UV exposure (phototoxic reaction).
Those who are more prone to develop an allergy to sunscreen are people that spend a lot of time working outdoors, those that apply sunscreen to sun-damaged skin and those that have chronic skin condition that are related to the sun like atopic dermatitis. It also seems that women are more at risk than men which is thought to be because they often use cosmetics with SPF.
Chemical vs Physical Sunscreens
Now, let’s have a look at the ingredients. There are two types of sunscreens: chemical absorbers and physical blockers:
Chemical absorbers: these are synthetic substances that absorb UV radiation and turn it into a less dangerous and less damaging form of radiation. They include ingredients like Mexoryl, Avobenzone, Oxybenzone and PABAs, most of which can cause irritations and allergies.
Physical blockers: these are ingredients that don’t absorb UV radiation, but instead reflect it and scatter it away from our bodies to the environment. They include ingredients like Zinc Oxide and Titanium Dioxide, which won’t cause contact dermatitis but can leave a white cast on skin. In addition, if the concentrations are too high, they can cause breakouts in some people.
What sunscreen ingredients are more likely to cause allergies?
There are several sunscreen agents that can cause allergies but the most common ones are:
Benzophenones: a group of substances that include Oxybenzone, Methanone, benzophenone-3 and any other ingredient that ends in “benzophenone”. They are very used in sunscreens for their ability to protect against UVBs and some UVAs rays but can cause contact dermatitis.
Cinnamates: a group of compunds that include ethylhexyl-p-methoxycinnamate, and 2-Ethoxyethyl-p-methoxycinnamate. These UVB absorbers, which can cause allergies, are often used together with Benzophenones. Cinnamates are related to Balsam of Peru allergies, so those that have this allergies should stay away with sunscreens that contain this group of ingredients.
Dibenzoylmethanes: this groups contains Avobenzone and Eusolex 8020. Because they can absorb UVA rays, they are often used in conjunction with other sunscreen agents for broad-spectrum protection. Cases of contact allergies to these compounds have been reported.
Octocrylene: this is a recent ingredients that has only been used for about a decade. It protects skin against UVB rays but can cause contact dermatitis.
Salicylates: they include ingredients like Benzyl Salicylate (the first sunscreen ever used in the USA) Octyl Salicylate, and any other ingredients that end with “salicylate.” These ingredients need to be used in high concentrations because their ability to absorb UVB rays is weak. They can cause contact dermatitis, but that rarely happens.
Para-Aminobenzoic Acid (PABA): although one of the first sunscreen ingredients to be used in the USA, it is now rarely found in products because it is a common allergen.
Fragrance and preservatives: to complicate things even more, it’s not only the sunscreen agents that can cause allergies and other negative reactions, each ingredient in the product could actually be the culprit. Those more likely to cause trouble are fragrances and preservatives, especially those that work by releasing formaldehyde. In any case, if you know you’re allergic to something, always check the label before purchasing.
What can I do if I’m allergic to sunscreen?
Apart from staying away from the sun, which isn’t always possible, wear protective clothes, sunglasses and hats, the first thing to do is determine what ingredient is the culprit. Checking the ingredient list is the first step to know what you are reacting to, but the only way to know for sure is to visit a doctor and do a patch allergy test.
Depending on where you live though, that can be quite expensive so if you think it is one of the chemical sunscreens you are allergic to, use physical sun blockers instead. I know that sometimes they can leave an unappealing white cast or be too thick, so experiment until you find the one for you. And in any case, isn’t that a small price to pay to protect your skin against all the devastating damage the sun can do?
I’ve tried a physical sunblock and I still had a negative reaction. What now?
Well, Titanium Dioxide and Zinc Oxide haven’t been reported to cause contact dermatitis but if you’re experiencing a negative reaction there could be a couple of reasons. Sometimes, these ingredients are used together with chemical absorbers, so it’s possible that it’s to those you are reacting to. Or maybe it’s the fragrance or one of the other ingredients. Check the label to see if you can discover the culprit and try something else instead like an unscented sunscreen that only contain physical blockers.
Another thing you could do is apply the sunscreen on a part of your body that won’t be exposed to sunlight. That’s because, like mentioned above, sometimes the allergy is caused by a combination of sunlight and sunscreen lotion. So if you apply a small amount of sunscreen on your arm and wear a long-sleeved top for example and your skin is fine, you know your problem is not caused by the sunscreen, but by the sunlight. If this is the case, you should consult a doctor to determine how you can protect yourself from the sun efficiently without side effects.
Are you allergic to sunscreen? Feel free to share your experience (or anything else you want) in the comments!