As a reminder, dermatologists recommend wearing sunscreen each and every day of the year, regardless of cloud cover or temperature, to best protect skin and prevent sun damage. What’s more, as a blanket rule, they suggest using sunscreens with SPF 30 or higher and applying at least two fingers worth to your face (and a shot glass worth all over your body) for optimal protection.
But the question is: What sunscreen should you use if you have reactive skin? And while on the topic, are those with sensitive complexions the only ones susceptible to an allergic reaction to sunscreen? To answer these questions and more, we chatted with three board-certified dermatologists about everything there is to know about sunscreen rashes and how to avoid them. Keep reading to learn more.
What causes a sunscreen rash?
Sunscreen rashes are a form of contact allergy. According to NYC board-certified dermatologist Hadley King, MD-FAAD, two things can cause sunscreen-related breakouts: occlusion of the pores by comedogenic materials or a sensitivity reaction to chemical UV-blocking ingredients. “And keep in mind that breakouts can come from any of the ingredients in the product, not only from the active sunscreen ingredients,” she says. “Breakouts can commonly be caused by other emollients, fragrances, preservatives, or other ingredients.” Because of this, she says that the best way to avoid developing a breakout or rash from sunscreen is to look for formulas labeled as non-comedogenic. Generally speaking, she says that zinc oxide and titanium dioxide (both of which are mineral sunscreens) are both non-comedogenic.
The trouble with sunscreen rashes is that they don’t always present immediately, which can make it difficult to identify the true complexion culprit. “It’s a delayed skin reaction that typically develops 12 to 72 hours after exposure,” King says.
What does a sunscreen rash look like?
Sunscreen rashes can take on a couple of forms. On one hand, they can appear as tiny white pustule breakouts as a result of pore-clogging ingredients in the SPF; on the other, they can look like traditional inflamed rashes. (FYI: If you develop full-on sun blisters, the sun itself is more likely to be the cause than your SPF.)
“Most of the time [true sunscreen rashes] will appear as a pink to red rash composed of small bumps coalescing into larger bumps,” says Schweiger Dermatology Group board-certified dermatologist Nava Greenfield, MD.
Most importantly, sunscreen rashes will only appear when sunscreen was actually applied. So if you only applied SPF on your body but your face is breaking out, the sunscreen isn’t to blame.
“As with most types of contact dermatitis, an allergy from sunscreen should have a sharp line of demarcation,” says board-certified dermatologist Dustin Portela, DO, FAAD. “This means it is often very clear where you applied it and where you missed applying it by the abrupt geographic pattern of the rash.”
What should you do if you get a rash from sunscreen?
If you determine that the breakout or rash you’re experiencing is from the sunscreen you used, stop using it immediately.
Before tossing the rash-causing formula, though, Portela suggests scouring the label. “It is important to check the label and determine what kind of sunscreen you are using,” he says. “Although sunscreens are safe, there are a small percentage of people who may have an allergic reaction to some of the ingredients.”
In general, he says that chemical sunscreens tend to be more triggering than physical ones. “The active ingredients in a chemical sunscreen are often things like octinoxate, homosalate, octocrylene, oxybenzone, and avobenzone,” he says. “If you are using a chemical sunscreen and develop a rash, I recommend switching to a physical sunscreen with active ingredients like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide.” These physical (and reef-friendly!) ingredients tend to be gentler, which is why they’re often found in baby sunscreens.
While sunscreen rashes are most often linked to the UV-protecting ingredients, King says that an adverse reaction to SPF can also occur if the product is expired. “If the sunscreen has expired or the ingredients have been exposed to direct sunlight and high temperatures, then the heat and sun can break down the chemicals and render them ineffective and potentially irritating to the skin,” she says. That’s why most sunscreen bottles and tubes explicitly say to keep them out of direct sunlight and stored in a cool, dry place.
How long does it take for a sunscreen rash to go away?
Sunscreen rashes can disappear within days to a couple of weeks. To offer your inflamed skin some relief in the interim, King says to wash your face and/or body and follow up with an emollient to help support the skin barrier. If your skin is particularly itchy, she says to reach for OTC hydrocortisone. (While you may feel inclined to try Benadryl to alleviate your symptoms, Portela says it won’t do much to address the underlying cause of the rash, though it could make falling asleep with an itchy skin concern a bit easier.)
If after two weeks you’re still experiencing redness and/or itchiness in areas where you had applied sunscreen, consult your doctor for best next steps.
How to avoid developing a rash from sunscreen
If you have particularly reactive skin, you may want to skip out on one category of SPF overall. As we mentioned above, chemical sunscreens tend to be more triggering than physical UV blockers. Here’s why: “Chemical sunscreen ingredients are absorbed into the skin while mineral physical blockers sit on top of the skin,” King says. “I think this is one reason the chemical ingredients are more likely to cause reactions.”
Of the various chemical sunscreen ingredients on the market, King says that oxybenzone is one of the most problematic. “It has been linked to irritation, sensitization, and allergies,” she reveals. (This is why many chemical sunscreens, like the Shiseido Clear Sunscreen Stick SPF 50+ ($30), specifically market themselves as “oxybenzone-free.”)
Specific chemical ingredients aside, Greenfield says that chemical SPF ingredients in general are typically paired with more preservatives to make the overall formula more stable. The downside is that these preservatives can cause adverse skin reactions, which can show up in the form of a rash from sunscreen.
Because of this, you may want to only opt for mineral sunscreens. However, according to Portela, that’s really not necessary—unless you can unequivocally determine that the chemical ingredients are the issue. It’s very possible that your skin simply doesn’t jive with the other ingredients in the overall formula. As such, your best bet is to look for top-rated SPFs and to always perform a swatch test on a small area of skin before applying the product to your face or all over your body.
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