What You Can Do If Your Sunscreen Gives You Allergies

Photo by Annalisa Johnson

As much as sunscreen is a skincare staple, for others, it can be a nightmare. Here’s how you can get allergic reactions from sunscreen.

Thanks to skincare innovations and social media, people are now incorporating sunscreen into their daily routines. From occasionally applying it during beach trips and summer vacations, sunscreen now comes in a wide array of products tailored to fit our day-to-day lives. Take your pick: a sunscreen spray, lotion, brush-on powder, or perhaps a roller stick. Each one boasts a unique formula meant to address our skin’s various needs. But while sunscreen is essential, it can cause people to break out in hives.

How does sunscreen work?

Sunscreen products have two types: chemical and mineral sunscreen. Mineral sunscreen uses finely ground particles of zinc oxide or titanium oxide, which sit on top of our skin and act like a mirror, reflecting the UV rays away from our skin. On the other hand, the ingredients in chemical sunscreens absorb and convert UV rays to be less harmful and damaging to our skin.

Chemical sunscreens are more likely to be the cause of allergic reactions. Redness, swelling, itching, raised bumps, rashes, fluid-filled blisters, or stinging on your skin are some of the symptoms you may experience. Although these are caused by a sunscreen allergy, there are three different ways that these symptoms are triggered.

If you experience a reaction anywhere you’ve applied the sunscreen, you may be experiencing either allergic contact dermatitis or irritant contact dermatitis. With allergic contact dermatitis, the reaction is triggered by a specific chemical ingredient in the product. Irritant contact dermatitis is more likely for those who have sensitive skin or skin conditions such as eczema. However, if you only experience a reaction after stepping out into the sun, you may have photoallergenic contact dermatitis, which is triggered when the sunscreen is exposed to UV light. 

Allergens in sunscreen

Through a process of elimination, you can deduce the cause of your sunscreen allergy. You can start by avoiding the most common culprit: fragrances. In any skincare product, fragrance ingredients can trigger allergic reactions in its users. To see if this is the cause, try using sunscreen products that are labeled as “fragrance-free” or “essential oil-free” and see if it gives your skin an allergic reaction.

If you’re still experiencing an allergic reaction after avoiding fragrances, you may be allergic to a specific chemical ingredient in the sunscreen. The most common chemical allergen in sunscreens is oxybenzone or benzophenone-3. Other potential allergens could also be cinnamates, dibenzoylmethanes, octocrylene, ecamsule, or methylisothiazolinone, but these are extremely rare causes.

A solution would be to opt for mineral sunscreen or a hybrid sunscreen that contains both mineral and chemical ingredients, as the ingredients in these are less likely to cause an allergic reaction. Aside from mineral and hybrid sunscreen, sun-protective fabrics are also an option. Look for fabrics with Ultraviolet Protection Factor (UPF), specifically those that are UPF 50.


If you break out in hives, here is what you need to do: For immediate relief, the first step is removing the sunscreen by rinsing the skin with cool water and staying out of the sun until fully healed. You may also use cold compresses to alleviate pain and inflammation and antihistamines to alleviate itching. Topical corticosteroids may also be used to reduce skin inflammation.

Sunscreen-induced anaphylaxis is extremely rare but still a possibility. If you experience tightness in the chest, difficulty breathing, swelling of the throat, stomach cramps, nausea, vomiting, or redness of the face and body, call an emergency hotline as you may be experiencing anaphylaxis.

After learning that you potentially have a sunscreen allergy, please seek a consultation with your doctor to determine the cause of the reaction.

Photographer: Annalisa Johnson. Makeup: Betsabé Apte Roman. Hair: Kayla Ziel. Models: Kanna Mae, Hannah Burnard, Nevaeh Ford, Shanice Montgomery.

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