Don't Get Burned by Your Sunscreen Allergy

The American Academy of Dermatology stresses the importance of using sunscreen before stepping outdoors to reduce your risk of skin cancer. But what if you're allergic to sunscreen? Does that mean you have to forego summer pleasures or put yourself at risk of getting burned? Absolutely not. Instead, the experts recommend you narrow in on exactly what's causing the problem and look for safer options.

Concern About Sunscreen Allergies

The scope of sunscreen allergies is really quite small, according to a study that was presented at the 2009 annual meeting of the American Contact Dermatitis Society. The researchers exploring the problem of sunscreen allergies found that many participants who reported a reaction after they slathered on the lotion or oil may not have had a true allergy. In fact, only one percent of all skin allergies have their roots in a sunscreen allergy. In the rest of the cases, other factors are to blame.

Sunscreen Allergy Risks

The people who are at highest risk for a true sunscreen allergy include those who spend extended periods of time outdoors, either for work or sports, as well as people who suffer from eczema and have highly sensitive immune systems. Females also seem more prone to sunscreen allergies than males, and scientists speculate that the reason for the gender difference could be because women are exposed to more sun protection products in their face, in lotions, and cosmetics, which can make skin more reactive over time.

A Sunscreen Allergy or Something Else?

Whether you fall into the high risk group or not, if you experience the signs of a possible sunscreen allergy, such as red bumps, itching, and burning after applying sunscreen, you'll need to rule out other possible causes such as a combination of sweat, sun exposure, and sunscreen chemicals all coming together. Often it's the interaction of many factors that lead to a reaction.  You may also be reacting to the fragrances, dyes, preservatives, and other chemicals that sunscreens commonly contain. So pay attention to the ingredients in sunscreens and select fragrant-free or dye-free options to avoid problems.

Your Options

Not all sunscreens are created equal. Some sunscreens—such as those containing zinc or titanium called zinc oxide sunblock—work by physically blocking UV radiation, while others, such as chemical-based sun protectors, contains chemicals that combine with the UV rays and keep them from being absorbed in the skin. Therefore, it can be helpful to have your allergist perform skin tests to narrow in on the specific ingredient that's causing your reaction. (Often, the chemical that absorbs the rays can be the culprit, which means you may be able to tolerate the physical form of sunblock like zinc instead.)

Avoiding Sunscreen Allergies

In addition to finding a sunscreen that doesn't irritate your skin, there are other things you can do to minimize your sun exposure and risk:

  • Wear clothing, a hat, and sunglasses that all contain an ultraviolent blocker.
  • Plan outdoor activities for before 10 a.m. or after 4 p.m., when the sun isn't as strong.
  • Seek shade as much as possible.
  • Keep in mind that certain medications, including acne treatments and antibiotics, can also make you more sensitive to the sun, so be extra vigilant if you take either one.




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Hobson, Katherine. "More Answers to Your Sunscreen Questions: Allergies, Peak Hours." Wall Street Journal Blogs., July 7, 2010. Web. 7 June 2011.

"Sunscreens Remain Safe, Effective Form of Sun Protection." American Academy of Dermatology. AAD, 23 May 2011. Web. 7 June 2011.

"Sun Safety." Kids Health From Nemours., Aug 2010. Web. 7 June 2011.

"True Photoallergy to Sunscreens Is Rare Despite Popular Belief." Dermatitis, 2010; 21(4):185-198.  Web. 10 June 2011.