What Can I Do If I’m Allergic To Sunscreen? – Beautiful With Brains

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 this happens and what you can do if you’re allergic to sunscreen:

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.

Sunscreen allergic is a negative reaction triggered by:

  1. One of the ingredients in your sunscreen (contact dermatitis)
  2. A combination of sunscreen and UV exposure (phototoxic reaction).

The first instance is more common – and easier to fix.

Related: Skin Irritation Or Allergy?

Symptoms Of Sunscreen Allergy

Here are some common symptoms of sunscreen allergy:

  • Blisters: Fluid-filled blisters that crust over
  • Dermatitis: Red, itchy patches of skin that may blister
  • Facial swelling: Your face, eyelids, etc grow in size temporarily
  • Hives: Elevated, pink and itchy bumps
  • Skin inflammation: redness, itching, swelling
  • Skin pain: The inflamed area can hurt

Symptoms also vary depending on the condition of your skin: “A mild allergy can first appear similar to a sensitivity,” says Rachel Nazarian, MD, is board-certified dermatologist. “For a basic irritant sensitivity, the skin is often just a little pink and inflamed, but may vary depending on the condition of your skin that day. Skin that is well-moisturized, healthier and stronger, for example, may experience little to no irritation when coming in contact with the ingredients. But at a different time, when skin is dry, perhaps more irritated after wearing certain fabrics (wool!), the skin may have a much more aggressive reaction when exposed to the same ingredients.”

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?

mad hippie facial spf 30+ review

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. Keep in mind, you could also be allergic to fragrances and preservative. Keep a look out for them too.

How To Treat A Sunscreen Allergy

You treat a sunscreen allergy like you’d treat any other allergic reaction. In milder cases, the rash and symptoms will go away on their own. For moderate to severe cases, you may need topical or oral steroids or antihistamines to reduce the inflammation.

During this time, avoid the same. Exposing your skin to the sun without sunscreen can aggravate the symptoms of your allergic reaction. Stay out of the sun completely or keep to the shade as much as possible.

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

badger balm zinc oxide sunscreen cream spf 30

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 Active Mineral Sunscreen Cream SPF 30 ($1.99): 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 DermstoreRevolve, and Skin Store.

I’ve Tried A Mineral Sunscreen And I Still Had A Negative Reaction. What Can I Do?

There are several possible explanations:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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!

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