You’ve heard about the risks of unprotected sun exposure. Sunburns, wrinkles, sun spots, even cancer. It’s not worth it. So, you slather on your sunscreen and head out into the sun, confident you’ll now be able to enjoy it safely.
But, wait! Something doesn’t feel right. Your skin is getting red and itchy. Now, it’s starting to burn. And maybe to swell too. What’s going on?!
An allergic reaction. Some of the sunscreen ingredients that protect you from the harmful sun’s rays can also cause, in some individuals, an allergic reaction.
What Are Sunscreen Allergies And Why Do They Happen?
You’ll notice if you’re allergic to sunscreen. Your skin, wherever you applied the cream, develops an itchy and blistering rash. This reaction can be triggered either by one of the ingredients included in the cream (contact dermatitis) or by the combination of the sunscreen and UV exposure (phototoxic reaction).
Who’s More At Risk Of Developing A Sunscreen Allergy?
You’re more at risk of developing an allergy to sunscreen if you spend a lot of time working outdoors, apply sunscreen to sun-damaged skin, or have a chronic skin condition that’s related to the sun such as atopic dermatitis. Women are also more prone to this type of allergy because we often use cosmetics with SPF, hoping they can act as a substute for sunscreen. They can’t.
What Does Sunscreens Contain?
Now, let’s have a look at the ingredients. Sunscreens contain UV filters that belong to two different groups: chemical absorbers and physical blockers. What’s the difference?
Chemical absorbers: these are synthetic substances that absorb UV radiation and turn it into a less dangerous and less damaging form of energy (heat). They include ingredients like mexoryl, avobenzone, oxybenzone and PABAs, most of which can cause irritations and allergies.
Physical blockers: these ingredients don’t absorb UV radiation. Instead, they create a shield on the skin. When UV rays hit it, they are bounced off and away from it. There are only two physical blockers available at the moment: zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. They don’t cause contact dermatitis but can leave a white cast on the skin and, when used in very high concentrations, lead to breakouts.
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 UVB and some UVA rays but can cause contact dermatitis.
Cinnamates: a group of compounds that includes 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 if you suffer from it, stay away from these!
Dibenzoylmethanes: this group contains avobenzone and eusolex 8020. Because they can absorb UVA rays, they are often used together with UVB filters for broad-spectrum protection. They can cause allergies too.
Octocrylene: this is a fairly recent ingredient. It has only been used for about a decade. It protects skin against UVB rays but can cause contact dermatitis.
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.
Salicylates: they include ingredients like benzyl salicylate (the first sunscreen ever used in the USA) octyl salicylate, and any other ingredient that ends 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.
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, and wear protective clothes (including sunglasses and hats), the first thing to do is to determine what ingredient is the culprit. Checking the ingredient list is the first step, 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. If you think it is one of the chemical sunscreens you are allergic to, use physical sun blockers instead. Look for “mineral based sunscreen” (zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are both minerals) on the label.
They can sometimes leave an unappealing white cast or be too thick, so experiment until you find the one for you (here are my favourites). 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 Can I Do?
Titanium dioxide and zinc oxide haven’t been reported to cause contact dermatitis, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you still won’t get a negative reaction. 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 contains physical blockers. Sunumbra Sunscreen SPF 30 and Badger Balm SPF 30 Unscented Sunscreen are both excellent options.
You can also try to 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 the combination of sunlight and sunscreen lotion.
So if, for example, you apply a small amount of sunscreen on your arm and wear a long-sleeved top and your skin is fine, you know your problem is not caused by the sunscreen itself, but by the sunlight. If this is the case, you should consult a doctor to determine how you can properly protect yourself from the sun without side effects.
The Bottom Line
If you are allergic to sunscreen, chances are you are reacting to one of the chemical UV filters or other common allergens such as preservatives or fragrances. Your best bet is to try a mineral sunscreen with as few ingredients as possible. If that doesn’t work, sunlight may be the problem. In that case, you should consult your doctor as soon as possible.
Are you allergic to sunscreen? Feel free to share your experience in the comments!