Can you be allergic to sunscreen?

While sunscreens may be safe for some people, it’s possible that some ingredients, such as fragrances and oxybenzone, may cause an allergic reaction. This can cause an allergic rash, among other symptoms.

If you’re experiencing rashes from sunscreen, it’s important to identify the underlying causes. Rather than forego sunscreen altogether, you’ll need to instead use another kind with other ingredients that don’t result in allergic reactions. Read on to learn more.

Symptoms of a sunscreen allergy look similar to that of a sun allergy (also called sun poisoning), as well as a heat rash or sunburn. All of these conditions involve red, sometimes itchy, rashes.

Other symptoms of sunscreen allergy may include:

  • hives
  • raised bumps
  • swelling
  • blisters
  • bleeding
  • scaling
  • pain

The amount of time it takes for an allergic reaction to develop depends on the person. It can happen within minutes or it may take as long as two days for any signs to show.

Sometimes you may not get a reaction until the sunscreen on your skin is exposed to sunlight with UV rays. This type of reaction is called photoallergic contact dermatitis.

You may be at an increased risk for sunscreen allergy if you’ve had contact dermatitis with other products. People with sensitive skin are also more prone to chemical sensitivities in skin products. If you have contact dermatitis to certain materials, you may also be sensitive to fragrances and other chemical ingredients.

You should also use caution when using a new sunscreen if sunscreen allergies run in your family.

A sunscreen allergy is treated similarly to other allergic skin reactions. In milder cases, the rash will subside on its own. Moderate to severe cases may require topical or oral steroids to reduce inflammation and the reaction. Oral antihistamines can also help with itching and allergic response.

Continued sun exposure can also cause further aggravation of a sunscreen allergy-related rash. It’s important to stay out of the sun at this time until your skin has completely healed. It can take up to several days for full recovery, depending on the severity.

The best way to prevent an allergic reaction to sunscreen is by avoiding ingredients you know you’re sensitive to. However, it’s not always possible to know which ingredient is an allergen for you. Unless you’ve seen an allergist for testing, discovering what you’re allergic to can involve a bit of trial-and-error.

You may want to avoid some of the most commonly known sunscreen ingredients that cause reactions. According to the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology, these include:

  • benzophenones (especially benzeophenone-3, or oxybenzone)
  • dibenzoylmethanes
  • cinnamates
  • added fragrances

Sunscreens with zinc oxide and titanium dioxide pose fewer risk for allergic reactions, and they also protect against UVA and UVB rays.

As with any new skin care product, it’s a good idea to use a patch test when trying a new sunscreen. You’ll want to do this at least a day or two ahead of time.

To do a patch test:

  1. Squeeze out a small amount of sunscreen into your hand and rub onto an inconspicuous area of skin. The inside of your elbow works well.
  2. Wait and see if any reaction occurs. You may need to expose the area to sunlight in order to see you have a reaction.
  3. If nothing happens over two days, then you can apply the sunscreen to the rest of your body.

Repeated or severe instances of sunscreen allergy should be evaluated by a doctor. A dermatologist can help by diagnosing the skin condition and treating it. They can also offer suggestions for sunscreen use and sun exposure.

You may also need to see an allergist. They can conduct blood or skin tests that will identify your exact allergens. Treatment options for severe allergies can include antihistamines as well as allergy shots.

Another way you can reduce your risk for sunscreen allergy is by minimizing direct exposure to UV rays. Wearing sunscreen every day is recommended when you’re outdoors, but you can also take other measures to prevent UV exposure. This includes wearing hats, long sleeves, and pants whenever possible. Look for clothes with built-in sunscreen protection at outdoor equipment or camping stores.

You can also reduce the amount of outdoor activities you participate in between 10:00 and 4:00 p.m., which is when the sun is at its highest intensity many places in the United States.

Sunscreen allergies aren’t super rare. The best way to prevent allergic reactions from your sunscreen is to make sure you avoid any known ingredients you’re sensitive to. Reducing your overall exposure to the sun can also protect your skin from harm.

Sunscreen use is an important part of skin cancer prevention, so you should try to find an effective product that doesn’t cause a reaction whenever possible.

If you continue to experience reactions despite switching your sunscreen, it may be time to see a doctor for advice.