Sunscreen isn’t optional. Forget to pile it on and, before you know it, your skin’s all wrinkled and riddled with sun spots. Maybe, you’ll get a sunburn, too. Ouch!
But, what if you put it on and it doesn’t agree with your skin? I’m not talking about a greasy texture or white cast. Those are nuisances but they don’t ruin your skin.
I’m talking about an itchy, red rash. It stings. It swells. What’s going on?
An allergic reaction. Some of the UV filters that protect you from the harmful sun’s rays can also cause an allergic reaction. Here’s why they happen and how to deal with them:
What Causes A Sunscreen Allergy?
You’ll notice if you’re allergic to sunscreen, trust me! Wherever you applied the cream, you’ll get an itchy and blistering rash.
It’s a reaction triggered by:
- One of the ingredients in your sunscreen (contact dermatitis)
- A combination of sunscreen and UV exposure (phototoxic reaction).
Who’s More At Risk Of Developing A Sunscreen Allergy?
Everyone can develop a sunscreen allergy but you’re more at risk if:
- You spend a lot of time working outdoors
- Apply sunscreen to sun damaged skin
- Have a chronic condition related to the sun (for example, atopic dermatitis)
- You’re a woman (we use cosmetics with SPF, so more chance to get exposed and develop an allergy to UV filters)
What Does Sunscreens Contain?
So, you’re more at risk of developing an allergy to sunscreen. But, not all sunscreens are created equal. Some are more dangerous for you than others. It depends on what UV filters they use:
Chemical absorbers: synthetic UV filters that absorb UV radiation and turn it into a less dangerous and less damaging form of energy (heat). They include ingredients like mexoryl, avobenzone and oxybenzone. They’re more likely to cause irritations and allergies.
Physical blockers: white minerals that absorb UV rays and turn them into heat. They also scatter a small portion of UV rays away from your skin. They include zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. They don’t usually cause contact dermatitis but can leave a white cast on the skin.
What Sunscreen Ingredients Are More Likely To Cause Allergies?
Anyone can develop an allergy to everything at any time. *sighs* But, but there are some UV filters that are common allergens. Here are the worst culprits:
- Benzophenones: a group of substances that include oxybenzone, methanone, benzophenone-3 and any other ingredient that ends in “benzophenone”.
- Cinnamates: a group of ingredients that includes ethylhexyl-p-methoxycinnamate, and 2-ethoxyethyl-p-methoxycinnamate. Thy’re often used together with benzophenones for a double chance of irritations. Cinnamates are related to Balsam of Peru allergies, so if you suffer from that, stay away!
- Dibenzoylmethanes: this group contains avobenzone and eusolex 8020.
- Octocrylene: a fairly recent ingredient (it’s been used for about a decade!) but it’s already causing allergies in a lot of people.
- Para-Aminobenzoic Acid (PABA): one of the first sunscreen ingredients used in the USA, it’s been almost completely abandoned.
- 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.” They can cause contact dermatitis, but it’s rare.
- Fragrance and preservatives: to complicate things even more, it’s not only UV filters that can cause allergies and irritations. Each ingredient in your sunscreen could be the culprit! The most likely suspects? Fragrances and preservatives, especially those that work by releasing formaldehyde.
How Can You Figure Out What The Culprit Is?
The only way to know for sure is to visit your doctor for a patch allergy test.
I know, I know, that’s expensive. There’s another way. It’s not as accurate but, if you can’t go to a doctor yet, it will give you a good indication of what the culprit may be:
What Can You Do If You’re Allergic To Sunscreen?
Your first priority is to stay safe in the sun. Here’s how:
- Avoid the sun as much as possible
- Wear protective clothes (that includes sunglasses and hats, ladies!)
- Switch to a mineral sunscreen (i.e. those with only zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide as UV filters)
What Are The Best Mineral Sunscreens?
As I’ve said, you need to experiment to find the right one for you. Here are a few of my fave picks to get you started:
- EltaMD UV Pure BroadSpectrum SPF 47 ($24.50): 10% zinc oxide + 5.5% titanium dioxide + water-resistant technology + dry finish for oily skin. Available at SkincareRX.
- MDSolarSciences Mineral Creme Broad Spectrum SPF 50 ($30.00): 1.5% titanium dioxide + 17% zinc oxide + fragrance-free. Available at Sephora.
- Replenix Sheer Physical Sunscreen Cream SPF 50 ($32.00): 13.75% zinc oxide + antioxidants. Available at Skinstore.
- Shiseido Ultimate Sun Protection SPF 50 Sunscreen + Wet Force For Sensitive Ski SPF 30 Unscented Sunscreen Cream ($10.79): 9/1% titanium dioxide + 19.3% zinc oxide + water-resistant technology. Available at Sephora.
I’ve Tried A Physical Sunblock And I Still Had A Negative Reaction. What Can I Do?
There are several possible explanations:
- You’re allergic to zinc oxide or titanium dioxide: these allergies are very, very rare, but you may be one of the unlikely few to have it.
- You’re allergic to another ingredient in the formula: as I’ve mentioned before, it may be a fragrance, a preservative or any other ingredient that’s causing the problem. Check the ingredient list like I’ve explained above to see if you can single out the culprit.
- You’re having a phototoxic reaction: as I’ve mentioned at the beginning of this post, it may be a combination of sunscreen + sunlight that’s triggering the allergy. Try applying the sunscreen on an area of skin that’s not exposed to sunlight. If you’re not getting a rash, it means you’re dealing with a phototoxic reaction. Consult your doctor for the best way to protect your skin from the sun without side effects.
The Bottom Line
If you are allergic to sunscreen, chances are you’re reacting either to one of the synthetic UV filters or a common allergen, such as fragrance or preservatives. 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. Consult your doctor as soon as possible!
Are you allergic to sunscreen? Share your experience in the comments.