Did you know you can be allergic to sunscreen?
I’m not talking about hating a greasy texture or a white cast. These are nuisances, but they don’t ruin your skin.
I’m talking about an itchy, red rash that stings. And swells. What’s going on?
Some of the UV filters that protect you from the harmful sun’s rays can also cause an allergic reaction. Ouch!
The worst part? Sunscreen ain’t optional. You still need to find a way – and a sunscreen – that doesn’t trigger the bad reaction.
Here’s why sunscreen allergies happen and what to do about them:
- What Causes A Sunscreen Allergy?
- Who’s More At Risk Of Developing A Sunscreen Allergy?
- What Does Sunscreen Contain?
- What Sunscreen Ingredients Are More Likely To Cause Allergies?
- How Can You Figure Out What The Culprit Is?
- What Can You Do If You’re Allergic To Sunscreen?
- What Are The Best Mineral Sunscreens?
- I’ve Tried A Physical Sunblock And I Still Had A Negative Reaction. What Can I Do?
- The Bottom Line
What Causes A Sunscreen Allergy?
You’ll notice if you’re allergic to sunscreen, trust me! Wherever you apply 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).
The first instance is more common – and easier to fix.
Related: Skin Irritation Or Allergy?
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)
Related: Do Cosmetics With SPF Provide Adequate Sun Protection?
How effective is your sunscreen? Sign up to the newsletter below to receive the “Sunscreen Audit” Worksheet and find out if your sunscreen is really up to the job:
What Does Sunscreen 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 UV Filters: 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 UV Filters: 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.
Related: What’s The Difference Between Chemical And Physical Sunscreen?
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 irritation. 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 two decades!) 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.
Related: All The UV Filters Used In Sunscreen: Which Ones Are The Best?
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:
TAKE ACTION NOW: Take a close look at your sunscreen to figure out which ingredient is making your life such a misery. Are there any ingredients, especially UV filters that you had never used before? Or, if you’ve tried more than one sunscreen and all of them have given you rashes, what UV filters do they have in common? The answers to these questions will narrow down the list of suspects considerably or even identify the culprit immediately.
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)
P.S. Mineral sunscreens can feel greasy and leave a white cast behind. Don’t be afraid to experiment and try different sunscreens until you find the one that’s right for you. And, don’t forget, these are small prices to pay for staying safe in the sun.
Related: 3 Reasons Mineral Sunscreen Is Safer For Sensitive Skin
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:
- Badger Balm Unscented Sunscreen SPF 30 ($15.99): 18.75% non-nano uncoated zinc oxide. Available at: Iherb.
- 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 Dermstore and Walmart.
- MDSolarSciences Mineral Creme Broad Spectrum SPF 50 ($30.00): 1.5% titanium dioxide + 17% zinc oxide + fragrance-free. Available at Dermstore and Sephora.
- Replenix Sheer Physical Sunscreen Cream SPF 50 ($32.00): 13.75% zinc oxide + antioxidants. Available at Dermstore and Skinstore.
- Shiseido Ultimate Sun Protection SPF 50 Sunscreen + WetForce For Sensitive Skin & Children ($42.00): available at Nordstrom and Ulta
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 unlucky 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.
I’m reacting to the seamed sunscreen I tried and am having eczema and more pimples my face isn’t smooth anymore please What do I do
Olive, sounds like you are using a sunscreen that is too heavy for you. Try switching to a more lightweight formula. To get rid of the pimples, try an exfoliant with salicylic acid. That should do the trick. Hope this helps.
I bought this lotus 3 in 1 matte look daily sunblock to achieve a matte look because i have oily skin, at first few days i dont have any reaction to he product, then one day tiny bumps appeared all over my face which looks like folliculitis upto my neck, nape and ears where i usually applied the sunblock. At first i didnt think that this caused my irritation until i discovered that oxybenzone in sunblock can cause contact dermatitis, hair follicle in flammation and r skin rashes which is present in the product i bought. These tiny bumps are accompanied by itchiness and its very unpleasant and emabarassing.
Marnie, thanks for sharing your experience and sorry this happened to you. Unfortunately, oxybenzone can do that. Try switching a physical sunscreen with zinc oxide.
Hi, we live in the UK and I was just researching sunscreen allergy as my son who is almost 5 years old is allergic to the chemical reaction in sunscreen and allergic to the sun also. But the reaction to the chemical reaction in the sun screen is worse than the reaction to the sun on its own. But of course he can’t just go without sun protection. The NHS have been amazing here, possibly because he is the only child in our county with this allergy… The consultants love it. (Medical novilty!) anyway he was prescribed some tayside visible light which is basically a zinc oxide based tube of sun reflector but it costs the NHS £200 per 50g tube.
On the positive side it goes on like foundation, and gives him complete protection. It come in three colours which they gave us a couple to mix to get skin colour for him but beige is perfect on its own so nice and easy for child carers.
My only question is do you know if this is something that might be out grown? He has had it since he was born when he was 8 months old when I put sun cream on him for the first time he came out in hives head to toe and his face swelled up so much that he couldn’t even open his eyes.
Hi Kay, I’m sorry to hear about your son’s problem, but glad the NHS has been wonderful to you all and able to help.
Unfortunately, I don’t think he’ll ever outgrow his allergy. Once you get it, you can only keep it under control by avoiding the trigger, not cure it once and for all.
What can I do to help the rash or clear it up hydrocortisone is not helping
A, I’m sorry cortisone is not helping. Unfortunately, I don’t what else to suggest. You should consult a doctor.
I am also allergic to sunscreen and Chapstick brand Chapstick. I developed this allergy when I was around 21 or 22. what can really help for sunscreen is neutrogena’s baby sunscreen, it’s a physical sunscreen and is the only cream that I don’t react negatively to. I hope that could work for others too. I recently had a pretty bad allergic reaction to a new makeup product, when I realized that my skin was starting to react, I washed my face, took an allergy pill and spread on Benadryl cream all over my face. It’s really important though to keep your skin clean and moist, because those blisters will cause painful chapping all over. I end up smoothing a hypoallergenic night cream all over my face several times a day and continue taking allergy meds. There is a really great did green tea face cream that could help this painful chapping on Pinterest. It will still take a few days to clear up but it will help. My dermatologist walked me through this a few years ago and it helps a lot. Though I do my very best to avoid products as best I can.
Kristi, sorry to hear about your allergy, and thank you for sharing your experience with us. I’m sure others will find your tips very useful.
try sudo cream. use thin layer on your rash. it should sooth and clear up within couple of days.:)
Trish, thanks for the recommendation.
I’ve been using the same sunscreen from Nuetrogena (helioplex) for years and recently (within the past year), I can no longer use it. The first day, I’m fine. The next day, I breakout in hives , but only where I apply the sunscreen – not all over. The only difference I can connect this to is a medication I was on for a year (Cellcept). I have now been off of it for about three months. I have gone to the dermatologist who has said this can be a combination of hormonal changes/autoimmunity disorders that have flared up within the past two years – another way of the Doctor saying “I don’t know what the hell is wrong with you…” The dermatologist did say it could be a change in one of the ingredients that is used and Neutrogena will not publicize this information. I other words, they continue to use the same ingredients, but maybe started using different chemical compounds that are sometimes cheaper, in order to make the product more profitable.
Tati, I’m sorry to hear about your experience. Unfortunately, you can become allergic to something at any time. But there can be other reasons as well. Like you said, maybe they changed the formulation… So frustrating! I hope you found something else that works well for you.
Can the effect of allergy be nullified if sunblock is used along with a good moisturiser ?
What if I mix both of these and apply onto my skin ?
Does the sunblock will still be effective then ?
Aksa, not really. If you’re allergic to something, there is nothing you can do about it, apart from avoiding the offender. And, by mixing the two, you would only be diluting the sunscreen, so it’ll be less effective.
My daughter age11, has reacted to sunscreen on her face since she was a toddler.
Literally a an hour or two after application her face goes bright red – as if she has been sun burnt. No blisters or rash just red. It then takes about 7 days to pass.
We found one brand that was ok – sun sense – but then a couple of years ago they changed their formula and no more.
(I stocked up on the old formula but I am on our last bottle now)
IT also seems the higher the SPF factor the worst the reaction.
She is better with factor 15 and 30 than 50 for instance.
It is very difficult to find a factor 15 sunscreen that is not embedded in a moisturiser.
Any brand suggestions would be greatly appreciated!!!
Mia, I’m sorry to hear about your daughter. Must be very frustrating for you both. Have you tried Sunumbra daily? It’s formulated with only zinc oxide and a bunch of natural extracts, so it shouldn’t cause any problems. SPF 15 too. You can check out my review here: http://beautifulwithbrains.com/2014/09/03/review-sunumbra-daily-spf-15/
With my 2 year old sun we are going through this now!! The last 2 times I’ve applied sunscreen using different brands( one being mineral based) he ends up with a really red face that looks like a sunburn. It even got so bad the next morning his face was completely swollen. I’m trying to figure out what he’s exactly allergic to. The sun? Sunscreen? Or a combo. It’s so frustrating!
Jessica, I’m sorry you and your son are going through this too. If even a mineral sunscreen (do you remember which one was it, by the way?) causes him such a bad reaction, then he’s probably allergic either to the sun or a combination of sunscreen and sun. I think you should take him to a doctor to know for sure.
People with sunscreen allergies also need to be aware of the fact that they can pick up other people’s sunscreen. If someone applies a chemical sunscreen then sits in a chair some of their sunscreen can stay behind. I have dealt with this allergy since 1985 and can still have outbreaks from picking up chemicals from those around me. My hope is the world switches to physical blockers…hey, one can dream 😉
Karen, that’s so true. Thanks for the remainder, and sorry you have to deal with this. It must be so frustrating. Physical blockers are becoming more popular, and, I believe, as scientists come up with ways to reduce the thickness and white cast they leave behind, they’ll become even more widespread. I will certainly do my bit to get people to make the switch. 🙂
I thought I was the only one who had this problem! What doctors and other people don’t seem to understand is that I don’t put the sunscreen on. It is everywhere. Wherever someone sits, touches, etc. with sunscreen on then it gets on me and within 24-48 hours, I am broken out severely. (Even a telephone that someone has used with sunscreen in their makeup.)
I have been dealing with this since around 1984.
If you come up with a solution, please let me know! 🙂
Tammie, so sorry to hear that, must be so frustrating!
Unfortunateluy I’m not sure what you can do, as you can’t control what strangers wear. But, if you can tell your loved ones to switch to ,mineral sunscreens, or just wear no sunscreen at all when you’re around, it should help.
While I discovered back in the 1980’s that I am allergic to chemical sunscreens, and quit using them back then, I also have an allergy to physical sunscreens. I have swelling of the underlying skin tissues as well as hard small fluid-filled pustules that burn and itch on the skin’s surface where-ever I have applied physical sunscreen. (I wear long-sleeved shirts at the beach, and long fishing pants, and only apply sunscreen to the backs of my hands, tops of my feet, face, throat and sometimes collar area.) Where I apply the sunscreen the thickest, I have the worst reaction, and where I apply it the thinnest, I have the least reaction, but always a reaction where it is applied. Incidental sun exposure when I do not wear sunscreen does not seem to cause any problem. I also get a very small amount of the allergy problem on my inside elbow and extending from that several inches both ways, even though no sunscreen was applied there. The mineral sunscreens are always very, very thick, but even when I apply them scantily, I get this problem. although to a lesser severity. Could it be their thickness, could it be I am allergic to one of the ingredients in the pphysical sunscreen, could an ingredient be contaminated with an allergen, or could this be a problem I have with the sun? I have all my life had the symptoms consistent with various autoimmune diseases but without a diagnosis.
An addendum to my post above: I only used the physical sunscreen once (one application) last week, and my hands are so swollen I cannot flatten them out and to use them typing here or use them at all is very uncomfortable It took two or three weeks for my face to clear up last year after going to the beach, and probably will again, even though I applied the sunscreen very scantily there. I think I might rather have the sunburn.
Toni, I’m sorry to hear about your problem. My best guess is that it’s a combination of the sunscreen and the sun together that’s causing the problem. Have you seen a doctor about this? Hope you’re better now.
My daughter is 8 if she goes out without sunscreen she does not burn but if we use sunscreen she burns can anybody help
Richard, I’m sorry to hear this. It’s so weird, I have never heard it happen to anyone else before. Unless, because she’s wearing sunscreen, she’s spending more time in the sun than usual without regular reapplication?
I had patch testing done a few years back and I discovered I was allergic to Metals. Lately my face has been getting red peeling scaling rash from sunscreen and I’m wondering if it’s the titanium or iron in the sunscreen that is causing this.
Nancy, sorry to hear about your problem. Unfortunately, it’s hard to tell without doing more tests. You could try using a product with only titanium and one with only iron and see which one causes the problem. Personally, though, I’d avoid them both.
I never used to break out in a rash but lately after trying Neutragena 60 spf for sensitive skin, my neck only has been breaking out in a rash and hives! My arms and face are both unaffected but my neck burns/itches/gets bumpy. I am going to try NOT applying it to my neck at all and see what happens! The dermatoligist looked at it and said it might be something I am eating in combination with the sun…. It is very painful and frustrating but at least my arms will be safe!
Jenny, it is very strange that it causes problems only on your neck. Are you doing anything to it you don’t do to your face?
Jenny, I’ve recently tried Neutrogena sensitive skin 60spf too and have exactly the same thing. Dreadful red, swelling patches on my neck and chest, but not on my arms or legs. I’ve only just connected the rash to the sunscreen, and will stop using, but did you find any answers as to why?
There is something about aerosol sunscreen that my body can’t handle. Fortunately I’m still able to use any type of sunscreen lotion, however if I’m ever in the vicinity of the spray, or even if I sit on a chair after someone who has sprayed it, I break out in terrible hives anywhere that it has made contact with my skin. Has anybody else had this problem?
I’m totally okay with it, since the lotion is generally cheaper and you’re not wasting a ton everytime you apply it, it just takes a little more work to get it all applied. Friends have been way more respectful, but I just had to put the foot down with the family over the holiday weekend (they thought 5 feet away was a safe enough range, but never thought to consider when I was downwind).
Jenn, I’m sorry to hear about your problem. Does it happen only with spray sunscreens or any other type of spray products? I’m thinking that maybe you’re allergic to some of the ingredients that allow spray products to function, or maybe the particular combo of them with sunscreen actives. Is that possible?
I can’t use anything on face. Not even make up.
Every winter my skin goes berserk and one side looks like it’s been blow torched.
I’ve got blackheads and anything I’ve tried makes the whole face worse too.
Belinda, I’m sorry to hear about your problem.I’d love to help, but your question is very generic. What do you mean you can;t use anything on your face? Are there any ingredients in particular that are causing problems? Is it just products with SPF or other products too? What are you doing now to take care of your skin?
Hello. I’m seeing a dermatologist to see what they say it is but I have lupus.
I wear a hat always and I use oil when outside.
Sweet almond oil has a sunscreen of 6 and I also make a cleanser from wax and distilled water and vitamin e oil .no fragrances . That’s all until I see what’s causing the problem
I’m glad to see you’re seeing a dermatologist. SPF 6 is not really enough but I guess it is better than nothing and I think it’s great that you’re still looking for ways to protect your skin from the sun. Do let me know how it goes with the doctor and if there’s anything I can do to help. Hope you’ll be able to figure out what causes the problem soon.
Hey I have a problem I don’t know what to do I’m allergic to ocybenzone and it’s in half of my moisturizer s i had one reaction to it yesterday and now I’m breaking out all over where I put it is there a treatment for it please help I’m only eleven
Anonymous, so sorry to hear that. First of all, stop using anything with oxybenzone straight away. Then, you can check out my post about what to do when you have an allergic reaction to something: http://www.beautifulwithbrains.com/help-ive-had-an-allergic-reaction-from-a-cosmetic-product/
Hope this helps.
I knew something was up! I am medium/deep complexioned and never burn, so I almost never wear sunscreen. When I use spf on my face, it is always very natural. This last time I was out in the sun, I decided to try some sunscreen on my shoulders to avoid skin cancer… there comes the burn and blisters, then peeling. I then remembered that this had happened one other time before. No more of that stuff for me. I thought for sure the internet was going to tell me I was crazy, just like my whole family did, but I decided to research it anyways. Ha!
Asia, you’re most certainly not crazy, and I’m sorry you have to deal with this allergy. But don’t give up on sunscreen entirely! Even if you have a medium/deep complexion, you will still suffer from sun damage, including wrinkles, dark spots, and cancer. Try using a mineral sunscreen. There are so many on the market now and they don’t cause any allergies.
Thanks for the support. It might cost 200 aud but I will have peace of mind.
Belinda, you’re welcome.
my skin gets oily and two tone darker after sometime after applying sunscreen and at times lead to acne. i dont get a rash or swelled skin, just oily and dark skin. but I have large pores and a patchy skin so sun damages my skin a lot, is a remedy available or can i still hope to find a sunscreen which suits my skin?
Saba, I’m sure you’re struggling so much with finding the perfect sunscreen. But, please don’t stop looking! You can find my fave sunscreens for oily skin here: http://beautifulwithbrains.com/2014/08/19/best-anti-aging-ingredients/
I have a sunscreen allergy too! Mine has started and worsened over the last few years but only affects the palms of my hands and my fingers. I break out in red itchy blister like lumps. It makes it difficult to use my hands properly. Some types of paint and glue also affect me like this. I currently use a barrier sunscreen which makes me look like a ghost and wash my hands thoroughly after applying it. I’ve had some odd situations before finding my current suncream such as the holiday where my previously tried and tested technique of using a once only application sunscreen failed on the first day and I started blistering which was when I had to get my sister to apply my sunscreen to me for the entire holiday!
Sarah, oh no! What a nightmare! I’m glad you’ve found something that works for you now. Thanks for sharing your story.
what do i do if i just used a sunscreen and have an allergic reaction to it and i only gt it on my hands, and also, it has not showed up yet
Trex, I’m not a doctor but if you get an allergic reaction, I would wash off the sunscreen immediately and, if needed, apply cortisone.
I too am allergic to sunscreen, living in the UK not too much of a problem, but when visiting my sister who lives in NZ, this does become an issue. I just shelter under an umbrella. I never knew I had an allergy because historically (hey, I’m 54) I didn’t use sun protection. However, my husband is very hot on using sun screen so about 15 years ago, on a holiday to Spain, urged me to slather up. Oh dear. I rather ballooned. I ended up in A&E back home covered in incredibly itchy red welts. It was awful. I eventually, put two and two together (NHS no help in my case) and realised it was sun screen. Trouble is, the blasted stuff also works its way into makeup, so I have big trouble wearing that. Luckily I’m happy to go make up free, but would love to know which of the ingredients causes me a problem. I can wear eye makeup ok, but any base creams/foundations will cause my face to start bubbling up in tiny red blisters – not the look I was intending! Thanks for your site, very useful. I’m going to do some comparisons on what’s in my make up and what can cause allergies in the sun screen.
Carol, thanks for sharing your experience. How awful. Yes, comparing the ingredients would definitely help. Here’s a list of the UV filters in sunscreens and makeup products: http://www.beautifulwithbrains.com/active-ingredients-in-sunscreen-products/
I’d just stick to titanium dioxide and zinc oxide and steer well clear of anything else. Hope this helps.
Since I turned 15, I have had issues with sunscreen and it has only worsened over the years. Initially, I would burn after applying sunscreen. Less than an hour in the sun and I would look like a lobster. Without sunscreen and hours in the sun, I have no indication that I have ever been in the sun. A couple years ago, I visited a water park and came into contact with sunscreen that was on an inner tube. Immediately I washed my skin but failed to wash the swimsuit. I ended up with severe burns under the swimsuit. Unfortunately my daughter and nephew also have the exact same problem. We have tried various types of sunscreens and have gotten severe burns no matter the type we use. It has gotten to the point that testing a new product causes so much pain that I hesitate to try anything else. People used to raise eyebrows when I said “no sunscreen for me” but I see it is becoming a more common issue. I do wish people would be more considerate when applying the sprays as those travel easily and cause us burns.
Thank you for putting the article out to help spread awareness.
Rhonda, thanks for sharing your story and sorry to hear about your allergy, Unfortunately, more and more people are becoming allergic to chemical filters, which is a shame. Have you ever tried a sunscreen with only mineral sunscreen actives, ie only zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide? These usually shouldn’t cause any allergies, although often they’re used with chemical filters so you always have to double check the label and be super careful. It doesn’t help that chemical filters have very long and complicated names that make them difficult to spot on the ingredient list.
This articel has been super helpful. I always have a allergic reaction when using sunscreen this problem has occured over the last 10 years. My son is starting to get the same reactions when using sunscreen. He is having an allergy test done next month. I stop using sunscreen about 6 years ago and try to stay out the sun. I will be trying the physical sun blockers to see if that will help. Is it safe to use the physical blocker sunscreen on my son as well?
Jessica, yes, physical blockers are recommended over chemical sunscreens for children. But I’d still do a patch test first to make sure it won’t cause any allergic reactions. The sunscreen ingredients in sun blockers are usually fine, but there can be something else in there, like a fragrance, that may irritate sensitive skin.
Hi, I have a slight problem with the information that you have given in this article. You stated that Zinc Oxide does not cause contact dermatitis. However, I am very allergic to zinc oxide and get contact dermatitis (redness, itching, swelling, and in some cases welts).
You may want to update this to say that in some people allergies to zinc oxide do occur although it is not common.
Kaitlin, thank you for your comment. This is truly the first time I hear someone is allergic to zinc oxide. I’m sorry to hear it doesn’t agree with your skin. I will update the article accordingly.
I’m allergic to both types of sunblock, My doctor tried several types, then gave me antihistamines to try with the sunblock, nothing worked. I have severe allergies to zinc and titanium, can’t even wear jewelry with titanium in it. Most foundations, face creams and bronzer have some form of spf, which also brings me out in welts. If i don’t use anything on my skin, I don’t burn or come out in hives, unless exposed to sunblock. The sun seems to cause my skin less damage than any of the creams and sunblocks. When I was a child sunblock wasn’t a thing, so didn’t know how allergic I was to sunblock until my first holiday abroad. I was always allergic to zinc, titanium,nickel and other costume jewelry, as well as most makeup.
Debi, oh no, that is awful. Sometimes the sun can be the lesser evil indeed.
Ahhh! So, after doing tons of research before our vacation this year, I bought only physical sunscreens. Alba Botanica very emollient mineral sunblock, and Trukid Sport. Both have concentrations on 20% zinc oxide in them. ALL 3 of my boys broke out in an itchy, red, swollen rash wherever I put the sunscreen! They’re MISERABLE. I am stumped because I was trying to AVOID bad reactions by avoiding chemical sunscreens!! I ended up buying them their old Banana Boat Baby (with lower concentration of zinc oxide) because they’ve never reacted to that one. However , I know that one has some questionable ingredients and questionable UVA protection.
I am afraid to try another high concentration of the zinc oxide tho…
Any suggestions at all??
Joann May, oh no, I’m so sorry to hear that! Did you try both sunscreens on your boys? High concentrations of zinc oxide may clog pores but I’ve never heard of it giving such a bad rash before. That’s not to say it can’t happen, but I’m wondering if there’s something else in the formula that’s causing the problem?
My 5 year old daughter used to be fine with badger baby camomile and calendula sunscreen, but three days ago she used it on a very sunny day and her face swell up for three days. It’s been horrendous. I just came across a post on another website from someone working for badgerbalm who said that a reaction to zinc oxide can occur and might be more common with their product because it’s non nano and not coated with silicon.
I might try another physical block cream. ..
Julie, sorry to hear that! Sadly, it’s so difficult to find nano zinc oxide in sunscreens. I think Skinceuticals is one of the few brands that use it.
Thank you so much for posting this. I have a pretty bad allergy to chemical-based sunscreens and after noticing rashes from non-sunscreen products, I started reading ingredients more closely. People should note that the active ingredients in chemical-based sunscreens are also used as regular (inactive) ingredients in non-sunscreen products. For example, I have noticed that ethylhexyl methoxycinnamate is used in makeup, perfumes/fragrances, hair products, etc. that do not put SPF in the product name; some of the products are NYX PROFESSIONAL MAKEUP Illuminator, Victoria Secret’s Fragrance Mist, L’Oreal Paris EverPure Sulfate Free Moisture Conditioner. Hair products and makeup may also include benzophenone; be cautious if the hair product mentions “UV Filters” but do not say SPF or does not list active sunscreen ingredients. Overall, people should just read ingredients for anything that may end up on your skin and not just sunscreen.
For sunscreen, I, of course, use physical-based/mineral-based sunscreens only but I am still allergic to some, probably to a preservative as mentioned in the article. So far, my favorite sunscreens are:
– Verdure Matte Mineral Moisturizing Sunscreen SPF 30 (I currently work for Verdure and helped to test the product for skin allergy while the it was in development)
– Neutrogena Pure and Free Baby
Hope my post helps!
Correction: Verdure Matte Moisturizing Mineral Sunscreen SPF 30
Thu, thanks so much for your comment and your remainder. You’re right, you can never be too safe. Reading ingredient list is a great habit to pick up to ensure nothing bad happens to your skin.
No problem! Thank you for approving my post and sorry for the typos!
Thu, my pleasure and no worries. 🙂
Thanks for the list of problematic ingredients in sunscreen, it’s good to know the common culprits. I have developed irritant contact dermatitis after 25 years of using the same sunscreen — no rash or redness, just a constant itch and burning tingle. Tested 3 or 4 of EWG’s top-rated organic zinc oxide physical sunscreens (with only ingredients I know I am okay with) at first on my arms, but I immediately felt a burning sensation, my skin turned red, and even though I got the stuff off my skin quickly, my skin eventually flaked and peeled in those areas. I’m guessing I am one of the fortunate few who cannot tolerate either zinc in any concentration, or zinc at 18-20%.
FWIW, I have read dermatologists’ recommendations to patch test on the skin below the earlobe and behind the lower jaw, as it is thinner and more closely resembles facial skin. I find this location gives a more accurate reaction for products that pass a 3-day patch test on inner wrist or forearm.
Thanks again for your informative research and for encouraging discussion.
Anita, so sorry to hear that even zinc oxide is giving you problems. Mmm, have you explored Asian sunscreens? They use a new generation of chemical UV filters that tend to be gentler and more effective than traditional ones.
Thank you for the tip. I had never thought of patch testing below the earlobe but it makes sense. 🙂
My problem is with the invisible vapors created by sunscreen. They go into my eyes and feel like large grains of sand. It’s worse when we are in the car, usually on the ride home. It’s so bad that I can’t open my eyes. When I was a kid, I was told that I was getting the sunscreen in my eyes. But as an adult, I cover up my body as much as possible and am careful not to go out in the sun for too long. But during those times when we go on trips to sunny areas, I’ve tried different sunscreens and different methods of applying sunscreen to make sure it doesn’t go into my eyes. For instance, I would have someone else apply it to only areas below my head. I still felt like I was getting sunscreen in my eyes. My eyes would still hurt. Then, the other day, I was on a shuttle and someone was wearing a load of sunscreen. It happened then too. So I’m thinking there could be an ingredient in sunscreen that is causing this reaction. If so, what ingredient(s) could it be?
Joy, I’m sorry this is happening to you. Unfortunately, it’s hard to pinpoint which ingredient is doing this without proper testing. I’ve never heard of sunscreen vapours before. Makes me think that’s something else that could be causing it, like a spray agent in spray sunscreens? Or maybe the alcohol?
I had never had a problem until about 3 years ago. I suddenly started waking up a with red, swollen itchy face. it took some time, but then I figured out it was my new make-up. I stopped the make-up of course. then on a trip up north it happened again! I finally realized it was sunscreen (it was in my new make-up which was a CC cream). I tried several sunscreens and nothing worked until I bought Clinique’s mineral based facial sunscreen. I also have to buy make-up without sunscreen or else I can only wear make-up 1-2x/week. the higher the SPF the faster the reaction and the more often I wear it the more of a reaction. It’s hard these days to find make-up without SPF. Anyway, my question is why does my face react to traditional sunscreens, but my body does not???
Brandi, unfortunately, allergies can happen at any time. 🙁 to answer your question, there may be a couple of explanations.
1. the part of the body that reacts more intensely (in this case, the face) is the one that experienced the higher level of sunscreen causing the allergy.
2. when you first experience a bad reaction, some immune cells remain in the area so they respond more promptly when you use sunscreen again.
Hope this helps.
I have had sensitive skin my whole life(exzema starting when I was about 2 years old), but overall have not had issues with facial products. Starting about 5 years ago, I would get random reactions to products, lipstick would cause a rash around my mouth, certain mascaras would cause a rash around my eyes, etc. So, I have remained almost makeup free since then except on special occasions. Have only used Aquaphor on my lips for years, in fact I have to have it on all day or my lips ache, but everything was “tolerable”. About a year ago everything got worse. Constant rashes, inflammation, burning, itching in multiple places on my face. Have been to the derm multiple times, did a “face diet” from her recommendation, which consisted of only using Vanicream products for 6 weeks. All was going well until I used the Vanicream sunscreen, once again, reaction. Derm said, ” I don’t know what to do anymore”. Just had patch testing done by another derm that was recommended by first derm and found out I’m allergic to fragrance. That explains a lot of what has been going on, but not the fact that all sunscreens irritate my face even if they are fragrance free. New derm is planning further patch testing to figure out which fragrances affect me but also doing photo sensitive testing because the sunscreen seems to have worse reaction on my face when the sun hits it. Also, I only have these issues on my face, no where else on the body. With the new fragrance allergy, trying to cut out all fragrances, laundry detergent, soap, shampoo, toothpaste, EVERYTHING has fragrance. This blog has been very informative, I am going to try the physical sunscreens and see what happens. Also, can you tell me more about the Asian sunscreens that you mentioned earlier? It will be interesting to see what happens with the photo sensitive testing. Thank You!
KK, sorry to hear your skin is so sensitive. I wish fragrance weren’t everywhere. It literally has no place in skincare and most everything else. *sighs* I hope the products mentioned here help. Unfortunately, sometimes, it’s the combination of sunscreen + sun that causes the allergy and that can be hard to detect and treat. Fragrance-free, zinc oxide sunscreens are your best bet here. They can be quite thick and greasy but offer excellent protection and are super gentle. Asian sunscreens use chemical filters like Tinosorb and Mexoryl that usually don’t cause allergies and irritations. They’re also very lightweight and aesthetically pleasing so don’t have the unpleasant textures of most zinc oxide sunscreens. It’s like the best of both worlds. But they’re really hard to get a hold of in the US. You’ll probably have to buy from an Asian website.