Sunscreen is a necessity for going outdoors. There is no dispute about the fact that you must protect yourself from the harsh rays of the sun. That is why there are so many types of sunscreen available to protect you from harmful ultraviolet A or B rays (UVA/UVB). However, protecting yourself from the sun can be a challenge if you have a sunscreen allergy. American-made sunscreens often contain multiple ingredients that may cause allergic reactions.
Although the likelihood that individuals have a sunscreen allergy has not increased, more products than ever contain sunscreen. As a result, those with sunscreen allergies must be vigilant about avoiding the harmful ingredients.
For example, sunscreen is now commonly included in cosmetics such as foundation that did not include it in the past. Therefore, the sections below provide more information about what ingredients may trigger a sunscreen allergy and how to alleviate symptoms.
Chemical Sunscreen Allergies vs. Physical Sunscreen Allergies
When trying to determine if you have a sunscreen allergy, the first step is to examine the type of sunscreen you are using. Is it a physical or chemical sunscreen?
A physical sunscreen is a thick lotion applied to your skin. Its active ingredient is typically either titanium dioxide or zinc oxide. Physical sunscreen works by creating a barrier on your skin. When the barrier is in place, the rays of the sun bounce off it.
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Physical sunscreens can provide advantages if you have skin sensitivities. Titanium dioxide and zinc oxide rarely cause allergic reactions. However, they tend to leave a white cast on your skin after application that can remain visible for several hours. Luckily, there have been many technological advancements in the creation of physical sunscreens over the years, and many newer formulas have eliminated the cast.
Although both zinc and titanium-based sunscreens can protect you from the sun, titanium-based sunscreens are less effective than zinc-based sunscreens at blocking UVA rays. UVA rays penetrate deeper into your skin than UVB rays, making them more harmful to you. Therefore, you should consider using a zinc-based sunscreen when available.
Chemical sunscreens are less likely to leave a visible cast on your skin. However, they each have different chemical compositions, and they are far more likely to trigger your sunscreen allergy. Additionally, they do not block or reflect UVA or UVB rays. Instead, the chemicals absorb the rays and turn them into a less harmful form of radiation.
Chemical sunscreens can contain any of the following possible allergens:
- Para-aminobenzoic acid (PABA)
- Padimate A and O are chemicals related to PABA that may also trigger reactions.
Any of the ingredients listed above can cause an allergic reaction. If you are sensitive to any of the listed chemicals, read the ingredients list of any chemical sunscreen carefully.
Common Symptoms of Sunscreen Allergies
To figure out if you have a sunscreen allergy, look for signs of an allergic reaction. The most common symptom of a mild sunscreen allergy is a skin rash. This is known as contact dermatitis. Contact dermatitis can occur right after you apply sunscreen to your skin. However, you may also notice the delayed appearance of a rash occurring up to three days after sunscreen application.
If you develop a rash after a sunscreen reaction, you may also notice other symptoms. For example, you may experience swelling where you applied sunscreen. The area may also become itchy. Resist the urge to scratch your rash. Scratching may make the area more itchy or painful. Other symptoms that may accompany your rash immediately or appear because of scratching the rash include:
- Development of hives or bumps on your skin.
- Scaly or flaky skin.
- Bleeding from the scratched area.
Serious Symptoms of Sunscreen Allergies
Certain sunscreen ingredients are more likely to cause a severe allergic reaction, especially if you already have sensitive skin. For example, PABA can cause serious allergic reactions in individuals with sensitive skin. Many sunscreens contain PABA, a natural ingredient often mistaken for a vitamin. Although referred to occasionally as vitamin Bx, it is not a vitamin.
If you are allergic to most other sunscreen ingredients, the most likely result is temporary but irritating contact dermatitis. However, an allergy to PABA can have much more serious results. Some of its side effects may even require hospitalization and, in extreme cases, can be life-threatening. Side effects of contact with PABA can include:
- Shortness of breath.
- Falling into a coma.
- Vomiting or nausea.
Another possible poor reaction to sunscreen is called photodermatitis, also known as a photoallergy. It occurs when you have an allergic reaction to the combination of sunscreen and sunlight, rather than your sunscreen itself. A severe photoallergic reaction may cause your skin to burn or blister. However, it is more like a chemical burn than a typical sunburn and takes much longer to heal.
How to Treat a Sunscreen Allergy
Your sunscreen allergy may not require any specific treatment. If it is mild and occurs immediately after application, rinsing the sunscreen off with water or a mild cleanser may eliminate your symptoms. If you still have a rash or other mild symptoms, applying a topical anti-itch cream, such as a cortisone cream, may help. You can also take an oral antihistamine to reduce the allergic reaction.
If you are exhibiting signs of an allergic reaction to sunscreen, stay out of the sun as much as possible. Sun exposure can amplify your symptoms. You should wait for all your symptoms to disappear before going out in the sun. The process may take several days.
If your sunscreen allergy produces severe symptoms, such as blisters, seek medical help. Your primary care physician can refer you to a dermatologist or allergist. He or she can recommend a course of treatment and make suggestions to help you avoid future outbreaks. You may also be a good candidate for allergy shots to reduce your sunscreen allergy symptoms.
How to Prevent a Sunscreen Allergy
Treating a sunscreen allergy may be easy, but ideally you would avoid having a reaction in the first place. One way to do so is by selecting the sunscreens you use carefully. Avoid sunscreens that have triggered allergic reactions before. Also, read ingredient labels carefully. Do not choose sunscreens containing common allergy triggers.
Another way to prevent sunscreen allergies is to avoid using spray-on sunscreen. It is easy to apply too much when spraying your sunscreen. As a result, you may experience an allergic reaction to the overdose of chemicals.
You can also have an allergist test you for specific sunscreen allergies. Additionally, you should always do a patch test when trying a new product. Apply a small amount of the new sunscreen to an area of your skin. If you show no signs of an allergic reaction after two days, you can safely wear the sunscreen.
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