How to Identify, Prevent, and Treat a Sunscreen Allergy

Sunscreen is a widely used skin care product worldwide to safeguard the skin from damage caused by solar radiation. Although it is mostly safe, some people may develop an allergic reaction to the ingredients. The allergic reaction may come in the form of rashes, skin reddening, itching, swelling, bumps, and more.

Symptoms of Sunscreen Allergy

Some common symptoms of sunscreen allergy include red skin, swelling, itching, rash, and blisters filled with fluids. Some rare symptoms include hives, bleeding, bumps, scaling, and pain.

A sunscreen allergy is generally classified into two forms: a contact allergy and photoallergy. In contact allergy, you will develop a rash in the place the sunscreen is applied, while in contact photoallergy, you will get the rash in the place where the product is used, but only when your body is exposed to the sun.

In some cases, you may get an allergic reaction soon after you use the product, or it may develop after years of use.

Who are more prone to Sunscreen Allergy?

People who are more vulnerable to a sunscreen allergy include −

  • Females − it could be due to the higher use of cosmetics containing ingredients similar to sunscreen.

  • People with chronic sun-related skin conditions − People already dealing with a sun-damaged skin

  • People with atopic dermatitis

  • Those who apply sunscreen on damaged skin

  • People with outdoor occupation

Types of Sunscreen

There are two types of sunscreen available in the market: Chemical and physical sunscreens. 

Chemical Sunscreens

Chemical sunscreens contain carbon-based compounds known as organic molecules. They absorb harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays by absorbing their high energy and preventing it from passing to the skin. Some common chemical ingredients in chemical sunscreen causing allergic reaction includes oxybenzone, cinnamates, dibenzoyl methanes and benzophenones. PABA (para-aminobenzoic acid) is also a chemical in sunscreen known to cause allergic reactions. However, PABA is rarely used in sunscreens made in the United States, but people outside the US must check their sunscreen for this chemical.

Physical Sunscreens (aka mineral sunscreens)

These products contain minerals such as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. They create a physical barrier between the UV rays and your skin. When the rays hit the sunscreen, it scatters them away from the body. Generally, physical sunscreens cause less irritation the chemical ones, but people don’t often use them as they leave a white residue on the skin.

Types of Skin Reaction 

The most common skin condition or allergic reaction caused by sunscreen use is known as Contact Dermatitis. 

Three types of Contact Dermatitis (CD) −

Allergic contact dermatitis − This happens when you are allergic to certain product ingredients.

Photoallergic contact dermatitis occurs when sunscreen is exposed to UV lights, similar to a skin burn.

Irritant contact dermatitis − It usually happens in people with sensitive skin or conditions such as eczema.

How can you prevent a sunscreen allergy?

The best way to prevent a sunscreen allergy is to avoid the allergic-causing ingredients altogether. Since some sunscreens have multiple active ingredients, it is difficult to determine which chemical is actually causing the reaction. For this, you may need to do a patch test for each product ingredient.

The following are some most common ingredients known to cause contact dermatitis (CD) −

Avobenzone − Although there is evidence of avobenzone causing CD, the cases are rare. Generally, it is a safe ingredient, but that doesn’t mean you should completely rule out the possibility.

Benzophenones − They have been used in sunscreens for decades and are also a common cause of sunscreen-induced CD. It also goes by oxybenzone, methanone Uvinal M40, diphenyl ketone, Eusolex 4360, and any chemical ending with benzophenone.

Cinnamates − You will rarely find them in sunscreens but commonly in flavorings and fragrances. They are related to cinnamon oils, cinnamic acid, and aldehyde. You may be allergic to these cinnamate-containing chemicals like Parsol MCX or any chemicals ending with cinnamate.

Dibenzoylmethanes − It is used in several sunscreens and contains the chemicals avobenzone and Eusolex 8020.

Salicylates − Benzyl salicylate (known to cause CD) was used in the first sunscreen developed in the United States. Some common chemicals in the group include octyl salicylate, homosalate, and any chemicals that end with salicylate.

Octocrylene − It is a new chemical used in sunscreens that are known to cause contact dermatitis. Its activity is similar to Cinnamates and sometimes used in combination with Cinnamates in sunscreens.

Besides the active ingredients, you should also check on the inactive ingredients in the product, like added fragrances, parabens, etc.

Sunscreens with zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are less likely to trigger an allergic reaction. However, when trying a new product, it’s better to do a patch test. Do it one or two days before using the product.

Step-by-step process for a sunscreen patch test

Step 1 − Take a small amount of sunscreen and rub it on a specific area of your skin. Avoid areas like the face, neck, forearms, and other areas that are generally exposed. Using it inside your elbow is a good idea.

Step 2 − Wait for 36-48 hours to see if any reaction occurs. You may need to expose the area to sunlight to check for signs of a photoallergic response.

Step 3 − If nothing happens within 48 hours, you can apply the sunscreen on the rest of the body.

How to Treat a Sunscreen Allergy?

A sunscreen allergy is similar to an allergic skin reaction, so the treatment methods remain the same. 

Mild reactions like rashes and itching usually subside on their own, but you may require topical or oral steroids in moderate to severe cases to reduce the inflammation. You can also take oral antihistamines to reduce the itching and allergic response to sunscreen. 

For allergies in children, apply a thin layer of petroleum jelly on the affected area to keep the skin moisturized.

For moderate to severe skin allergies, you may do a cold compress to alleviate the pain and inflammation, followed by non-scented skin moisturizers like petroleum jelly or calamine lotion, along with any medications prescribed by your doctor.

It is crucial to stay away from the sun until your skin is completely healed, as continued sun exposure can aggravate the condition. The total healing time can take around 10-20 days and may take even more, depending upon the severity of the condition.


Remember, it is crucial to find the root cause of the sunscreen allergy instead of stopping using it altogether. This is because you still need sunscreen to protect your skin from irreversible sun damage. If you notice several instances of allergy, you should contact an allergist to diagnose the ingredients causing the allergy. Besides sunscreen, you can also use additional measures to safeguard yourself from harmful UV rays, such as wearing full clothes, hats, UV-protected sunglasses, etc.