After a day of fun in the sun, sometimes it isn’t a surprise to see some redness and feel the uncomfortable itching sensation that comes with it. But that isn’t necessarily caused by missing a few spots with your sunscreen or forgetting to reapply. (Remember that it’s crucial to thoroughly slather on SPF every 90 minutes or so when you’re enjoying some time al fresco.) That could actually be an allergic reaction to your sunscreen.
How common is it really for people to be allergic to sunscreen? “Uncommon!” says Rachel Nazarian, MD, a board-certified dermatologist at Schweiger Dermatology Group in New York City. “There are some ingredients that are somewhat irritating to people with sensitive skin, causing what is called an called an irritant allergy, and this is much more common than having a true allergy (or a contact allergy).”
In fact, Audrey Kunin, MD, founder of DERMAdoctor, says that typically less than one percent of people are allergic to sunscreen. Read on to learn more about what sunscreen allergies are, how to detect them, and what to do about them.
Meet the Expert
- Rachel Nazarian, MD, is board-certified dermatologist at Schweiger Dermatology Group in New York City.
- Audrey Kunin, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist in Kansas City and the founder of DERMAdoctor.
What Is a Sunscreen Allergy?
A sunscreen allergy is exactly what it sounds like: It is when someone has an allergic reaction to sunscreen. “Just like anyone can have a dietary allergy or sensitivity, anyone can be allergic or sensitive to one of the many ingredients found in sunscreens, or any other skincare product,” Nazarian says. These are the different types of a sunscreen allergy:
- Sensitive skin: Most often, people with sensitive skin find some of the ingredients in sunscreen to be irritating. “This is not so much a true allergy, but if the skin is particularly inflamed, dry, or already irritated from something else, then they may be more likely to have a reaction when they apply their sunscreen,” Nazarian says.
- Contact allergy: “A true allergy triggers a different type of immunologic reaction in the body and continuing to apply an ingredient that you’re allergic to will only worsen symptoms each time,” Nazarian says. “Some people can be so allergic that they form blisters when they come in contact with the offending ingredient.”
- Photo contact allergy: This type of allergy requires the offending ingredient to be exposed to sunlight to activate the allergic reaction. “As you can imagine, this is quite problematic when most people use sunscreens in order to spend more time in the sun,” Nazarian says.
Signs and Symptoms of a Sunscreen Allergy
A sunscreen allergy can appear as hives, with red, raised welts, as well as itchy, rashy skin, according to Kunin.
“There are overlapping signs of all categories," Nazarian says. “A mild allergy can first appear similar to a sensitivity. 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.”
Regardless of the condition of your skin, a contact allergy will always be itchy, red and inflamed, explains Nazarian. With repeated exposure the reaction will become more and more vigorous, and the itching may happen much quicker and sooner after application of the product.
Who Is at Risk for a Sunscreen Allergy?
Though technically anyone can experience a sunscreen allergy, some people are more prone than others. “Anyone with asthma, hay fever, or atopic eczema may be more sensitive and at risk to allergies to chemical sunscreen ingredients,” warns Kunin.
While having sensitive skin increases the chance of being irritated by sunscreen, it is different from a “contact allergy,” which is a different immunologic response, explains Nazarian.
Ingredients That Might Trigger Sunscreen Allergies
“In reality, any of the ingredients can cause an allergy, but the most common ones are methoxycinnamate, benzophenone-2, benzophenone-3 and one known as PABA,” Nazarian says.
Additionally, Kunin recommends steering clear of dibenzoylmethanes. Delicate complexions will want to avoid fragrance and dyes, which are the most common source of skincare ingredient allergies.
If you have sensitive skin, it’s a good idea to apply a small amount to a discreet location, such as your wrist or behind the ear, to see if you have any reaction. “You could be sensitive or allergic to one of many different ingredients in sunscreen, not just the active ingredient, so if you do note a reaction, that would be the best time to move forward with the patch test with your board-certified dermatologist,” Nazarian says.
Sunscreens to Help Prevent Reactions
Kunin recommends opting for physical blockers that contain zinc oxide or titanium dioxide for those who might have sensitive skin or think they have a sunscreen allergy. Ahead are some expert-backed picks.
“What I love about this sunscreen is that it is really lightweight and combined with anti-inflammatory ingredients like niacinamide, making it more tolerable for many sensitive skin types,” Nazarian says. “It’s also great for all skin shades, including darker skin types, as it blends in beautifully.”
One of Kunin’s picks, this lightweight mineral sunscreen doubles as a moisturizer. Designed to work for most skin types, it’s spiked with blueberry to help protect skin from infrared-induced free radical damage to prevent the signs of aging. It also contains winter cherry to protect skin from blue light and pollution.
“Aside from being purely mineral, using titanium and zinc to block ultraviolet radiation, this is a good option because it glides on really easily, works well under makeup similar to a primer, and is non-greasy, leaving a matte finish,” Nazarian says. “It’s also fragrance-free for those who are easily irritated by fragrance.”
Beloved by dermatologists, including Kunin, this mineral-based sunscreen is infused with hyaluronic acid to aid moisture retention and fight fine lines. Fragrance and paraben-free, the gentle formula is ideal for sensitive skin.
“What I love about this sunscreen is it contains only physical blockers—great for people who are truly allergic to the chemical blockers or who might have a higher risk of irritation from the chemical ingredients,” Nazarian says. “It goes on really smooth and it’s fragrance free and allergy tested.”
It’s easy to forget the eye area when applying sunscreen. That’s why Kunin chose this pick from her own line. The multitasker does so much more than provide sun protection—it also moisturizes, illuminates, blurs, brightens and smooths.
The Final Takeaway
When in doubt about sunscreen allergies, consult with your dermatologist. "We have many tools to determine if you’re experiencing an allergy and to identify one of many potential ingredients that could be causing it,” Nazarian says. “Additionally, we will have a long list of recommendations of products that you can use and ingredients that would be safe given any limitations you may have.”