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What Are the Signs of a Sunscreen Allergy?

By C. K. Lanz
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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A sunscreen allergy usually manifests itself either as a contact photoallergy or as allergic contact dermatitis. Allergic contact dermatitis occurs when an allergic individual applies sunscreen to his or her skin and inflammation develops within two days of exposure. This inflammation can take the form of a rash and redness or blisters and open sores. A contact photoallergy has similar symptoms, but occurs only when the sunscreen on the skin is exposed to sunlight. The interaction between the sunscreen and the sunlight irritates the skin rather than exposure to sunscreen alone.

Some chemicals in sunscreen like PABA, oxybenzone, and avobenzone are known to cause allergic reactions in certain individuals. These chemicals absorb ultraviolet radiation, protecting the skin from harmful exposure. The type of sunscreen allergy reaction can be contact photoallergy or allergic or irritant contact dermatitis.

There are several symptoms of a sunscreen allergy, depending on the severity. The exposed area of skin may erupt in a red rash or bumps or a dry patch that is similar to a burn. A severe reaction can result in blisters and draining fluid. The affected area may be itchy, tender, and painful.

Diagnosing a sunscreen allergy can be complicated by the fact that inflammation can occur immediately or two days after use. A person can develop symptoms the first time he or she uses sunscreen or experience an allergic reaction after years of safe application. If it is a sunscreen allergy, the symptoms will appear wherever sunscreen was applied or wherever the skin was exposed to sunlight.

A medical professional such as an allergist or dermatologist can diagnose a sunscreen allergy and determine which chemicals in the product are causing the irritation. This is usually accomplished by performing a patch test. The suspected allergen is applied to a patch that is then placed on the skin. If the exposed skin becomes itchy and irritated, the individual is allergic to the substance on the patch. A photoallergy is typically diagnosed in a similar manner, but the patch is exposed to ultraviolet light.

Treating an allergic reaction to sunscreen can involve thoroughly washing the exposed area and avoiding the irritant. Anti-itch lotions and creams as well as wet compresses can help soothe irritated skin. Corticosteroid or tacrolimus cream may be prescribed to relieve inflammation. In some cases, a doctor may advise doing nothing to the affected area rather than risk further irritation through treatment. Most reactions will clear within three weeks, although there is the risk of developing a secondary bacterial skin infection.

It is uncommon for someone to develop a sunscreen allergy. As inflammation may not occur for up to 48 hours after exposure, it can be difficult to determine if sunscreen is the irritant. Owing to the fact that sunscreen can help reduce an individual’s risk of developing skin cancer, an allergist or dermatologist should diagnose the cause of the irritation before sunscreen use is abandoned. There may be a sunscreen available that does not contain the chemical or chemicals to which the person is allergic.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Discussion Comments
By anon960182 — On Jul 09, 2014

I also had a terrible reaction to any product with helioplex and I just discovered L'Oreal sunscreen has it too, not just Neutrogena. I discovered that the hard way! I had a blistering rash for many days. Oxybenzone is the culprit. I am allergic to all sulfa meds and the medication macrobid too. I'm using CeraVe now on the recommendation of my dermatologist.

By anon959163 — On Jul 02, 2014

I just recently used Neutrogena 70 with Heloplex and I broke out in painful blisters. It had been two days and then I ended up with this! I have been using Cortaid cream on it daily, sometimes more than once or twice a day, and Advil.

By anon949626 — On May 05, 2014

After gathering a long list of products I had an allergic reaction to, I discovered they all had one thing in common: Oxybenzone. My doctor told me to try sunscreens that are Titanium dioxide or zinc oxide based and that helped, but these types of sunscreens go on really thick and feel very heavy. I recently found a sunscreen (SPF 50) made by CeraVe that is Titanium dioxide and Zinc oxide based and it's lightweight. Hope this helps!

By Logicfest — On Jan 27, 2014

Is there a sunscreen that people can use should they develop an allergy to typical sunscreen lotions? What if you have someone who is allergic to both the sun and sunscreen lotion? Also, if someone is prone to skin cancer, what do they do if they are allergic to sunscreen lotion?

Silly questions? I hope not -- it just seems that a sunscreen allergy could be an awful thing to have.

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