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Yes, allergies to sunscreens do exist, here is how to identify them

After a day of fun in the sun, it's sometimes not surprising to see redness and feel the uncomfortable itching sensation that comes with it.

But this isn't necessarily because he's missing a few spots with your sunscreen or forgot to reapply (remember, it's crucial to apply SPF every 90 minutes or so when you're enjoying some time outdoors). This could actually be an allergic reaction to your sunscreen.

How common is it really for people to be allergic to sunscreen? "Rare!" says Rachel NazarianMD, board-certified dermatologist at Schweiger Dermatology Group in New York. "Some ingredients are somewhat irritating to people with sensitive skin, causing what's called an irritant allergy, and that's much more common than having a true allergy (or contact allergy)."

In fact, Audrey KounineMD, founder of DERMAdocteur indicates that generally 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 a board-certified dermatologist with the Schweiger Dermatology Group in New York City.
  • Audrey Kounine MD, is a board-certified dermatologist in Kansas City and the founder of DERMAdocteur.

What is a sunscreen allergy?

A sunscreen allergy is exactly what it sounds like: it's when someone has an allergic reaction to sunscreen. "Just as anyone can have a food allergy or sensitivity, anyone can be allergic or sensitive to any of the many ingredients found in sunscreens or any other skin care product," says Nazarian. Here are the different types of sunscreen allergy:

  • Sensitive skin: More often than not, people with sensitive skin find some of the ingredients in sunscreen irritating. "It's not so much a real allergic, but if the skin is particularly inflamed, dry or already irritated by something else, 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 immunological reaction in the body, and continuing to apply an ingredient you're allergic to will only make the symptoms worse each time," says Nazarian. "Some people can be so allergic that they form blisters when they come into 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 to spend more time in the sun," says Nazarian.

Signs and symptoms of a sunscreen allergy

A sunscreen allergy can appear as hives, with red, raised welts, as well as itching and rashes, according to Kunin.

"There are overlapping signs from all categories," says Nazarian, "A mild allergy may first look like a sensitivity.

For a basic irritant sensitivity, the skin is often just a little pink and inflamed, but this can vary depending on the condition of your skin that day. Well-moisturized, healthier and stronger skin, for example, may feel little or no irritation on contact with ingredients.

But at another time, when skin is dry, perhaps more irritated after wearing certain fabrics (wool!), skin can 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 increasingly vigorous, and itching may occur much sooner and more rapidly after application.

Who is at risk of allergy to sunscreens?

Although technically anyone can be allergic to sunscreens, some people are more prone than others. "Anyone with asthma, hay fever or atopic eczema may be more sensitive and at risk of allergies to the chemical ingredients in sunscreen," warns Kunin.

While having sensitive skin increases the risk of being irritated by sunscreen, this is different from a "contact allergy," which is a different immunological response, Nazarian explains.

Ingredients that can trigger allergies to sunscreens

"In reality, any of the ingredients can cause an allergy, but the most common are methoxycinnamate, benzophenone-2, benzophenone-3 and the one known as PABA," Nazarian explains.

In addition, Kunin recommends avoiding dibenzoylmethanes. Delicate complexions will want to avoid fragrances and dyes, which are the most common source of allergies to skincare ingredients.

If you have sensitive skin, it's a good idea to apply a small amount to an inconspicuous area, such as your wrist or behind the ear, to see if you have a reaction. "You could be sensitive or allergic to one of the many different ingredients in sunscreen, not just the active ingredient, so if you notice a reaction, that would be the best time to go for a skin test with your certified dermatologist," says Nazarian.

Sunscreens to help prevent reactions

Kunin recommends opting for physical blockers containing zinc oxide or titanium dioxide for those who may have sensitive skin or think they may have an allergy to sunscreens. Coming soon, a few expert-backed choices.

"What I love about this sunscreen is that it's really lightweight and combined with anti-inflammatory ingredients like niacinamide, which makes it more tolerable for many sensitive skin types," says Nazarian. "It's also ideal for all skin tones, including darker skin types, as it fades beautifully."

SuperGoop! ZincScreen

One of Kunin's top picks, this lightweight mineral sunscreen doubles as a moisturizer. Designed to work with most skin types, it's enriched 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.

Sun Bum Lotion Solaire Minérale SPF 30

"As well as being purely mineral, using titanium and zinc to block ultraviolet rays, it's a good option because it glides on very 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 perfume."

Elta® ? UV Daily Moisturizing Face Cream

See the different products offered by EltaMD and good reviews!

Popular with dermatologists, including Kunin, this mineral-based sunscreen is infused with hyaluronic acid to promote moisture retention and fight fine lines. Fragrance-free and paraben-free, the formula is ideal for sensitive skin.

La Roche Posay? Anthelios Gentle Mineral Sunscreen Lotion SPF 50 

"What I love about this sunscreen is that it contains only physical blockers, ideal for people who are really allergic to chemical blockers or who might have a higher risk of irritation from chemical ingredients," says Nazarian. "It applies really gently and is fragrance-free and allergy-tested."

DERMAdocteur Dermatologically Radiant Eye Contour Cream SPF 30

It's easy to forget the eye contour area when applying sunscreen. That's why Kunin has chosen this from its own range. Multitasking does much more than provide sun protection, it moisturizes, illuminates, blends, brightens and smoothes too.

Sunscreens can cause allergies in some people. It is important to read labels and instructions carefully before using the cream, and always seek the advice of a health professional if necessary.

The last word

If in doubt about allergies to sunscreens, consult your dermatologist. Sunscreens can cause allergies in some people. It's important to read labels and instructions carefully before using the cream, and always seek the advice of a health professional if necessary.

"We have many tools to determine if you have an allergy and to identify one of the many potential ingredients that could be the cause," says Nazarian.

"In addition, we'll have a long list of recommendations of products you can use and ingredients that would be safe given any limitations you might have.

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Gabriela is the creator of the blog, a platform dedicated to natural cosmetics and skin care. Her blog is an invaluable source of information and advice on how to achieve perfect, glowing skin. Gabriela passionately shares her in-depth knowledge of natural products, emerging trends and practical tips for an effective skincare routine.

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