Reactions to sunscreens explained
What causes sunscreen reactions?
Reactions to sunscreen are rare and can be a result of a sensitivity or allergy to any of the many ingredients used in these products. Some people may have a reaction to a fragrance, preservative, UV absorber or another component of the sunscreen.
Sensitivities to sunscreen are complex and can range from mild to severe. Reactions can be linked to a range of co-factors, including sunlight or other allergens, and can also be caused by or made more severe if sunscreen is used with some medications or other topical creams and lotions.
Some reactions occur soon after applying the sunscreen, while others (e.g. allergic reactions) can develop after a couple of days or even years of using the same product.
Reactions occur in a very low proportion of the population – fewer than 1% of all users. Although reactions are uncommon, it can be upsetting for those affected.
As with all products, use of sunscreen should cease if an unusual reaction occurs. Individuals or families experiencing reactions should seek a referral to a dermatologist to understand what may have caused the reaction and get advice on ingredients that should be avoided in the future.
What are the different types of reactions?
The most common sunscreen reaction is called contact dermatitis, and occurs in people who have a sensitivity to an ingredient found in sunscreen or cosmetics with a sunscreen component. There are two types of contact dermatitis: irritant and allergic.
Irritant contact dermatitis
Irritant contact dermatitis is a reaction that can occur after applying sunscreen and is more common in people who have a history of eczema or sensitive skin. It causes an irritation in the area of the skin where the sunscreen was applied, and can appear as mild redness or as a stinging sensation (without any redness).
Allergic contact dermatitis
Allergic contact dermatitis is the less common type of contact dermatitis and occurs in people who have developed a sensitivity to an ingredient found in the sunscreen or cosmetics with SPF protection. This reaction is the result of an allergy to an ingredient, such as fragrances or preservatives, and can occur even if you have haven't had a reaction to these ingredients or sunscreens in the past, as allergies can develop over time.
An itchy, blistering rash occurs on skin where the product has been applied, and can sometimes spread to other areas.
A rarer type of sunscreen reaction is called photocontact dermatitis. This type of reaction usually occurs where the product has been applied to the body and exposed to sunlight. In some people, there is an interaction between a sunscreen ingredient and UV light which leads to a skin reaction. This is usually a result of an allergy to the active ingredients, but it can also be due to a reaction to the fragrances or preservatives in the product.
The reaction may look like severe sunburn or eczema, and most commonly occurs on the face, arms, back of hands, chest and lower neck.
How can I avoid a sunscreen reaction or allergy?
As sunscreens contain multiple active ingredients, it can be difficult to determine whether you will have a reaction – and, if you do, what component of the sunscreen caused it. For this reason, Cancer Council recommends performing a usage test before applying any sunscreen, where a small amount of the product is applied on the inside of the forearm for a few days to check if the skin reacts, prior to applying it to the rest of the body.
While the usage test may show whether the skin is sensitive to an ingredient in the sunscreen, it may not always indicate an allergy, as this may occur after repeated use of the product.
If you have a known sunscreen allergy, the best way to avoid a problem is to not use any product containing the substances you are sensitive to.
What sunscreens can be used by people with sunscreen allergies?
Sunscreen ingredients are similar across all brands, and sensitivities to sunscreen are complex, so simply changing the brand of sunscreen may not eliminate a reaction. A dermatologist is best placed to diagnose any reaction and help determine which ingredients should be avoided in the future.
Sunscreens that use ingredients such as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide have not been reported to cause contact allergy. However, some people do not like to use products with these ingredients as they tend to be heavier creams that do not absorb well into the skin. You may like to try a sunscreen that has been specially formulated for sensitive skin. A dermatologist will be able to provide product advice.
Cancer Council Australia research published in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health in 2015 showed that in 2010, Australians prevented more than 1700 cases of melanoma and 14,000 cases of non-melanoma skin cancer thanks to regular sunscreen use over the previous decade. So we know sunscreen saves lives. But it is only one of five important measures for reducing the risk of skin cancer, along with seeking shade, slipping on protective clothing and a hat, and sliding on sunglasses.
This page has been reviewed and endorsed by the Australasian College of Dermatologists.
Find out more about sun safety