As a reminder, dermatologists recommend using sunscreen every day of the year, regardless of cloudiness or temperature, to better protect skin and prevent sun damage. Also, as a general rule of thumb, they suggest using sunscreens with SPF 30 or higher and applying at least two fingertips to your face (and a shot glass all over your body) for optimal protection.
But the question is: which sunscreen ought do you use if you have reactive skin? And while we’re on the subject, are people 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. Read on to learn more.
What causes a sunscreen rash?
Sunscreen rashes are a form of contact allergy. According to New York City board-certified dermatologist Hadley King, MD-FAAD, two things can cause sunscreen-related breakouts: pore-clogging by comedogenic materials or a sensitivity reaction to chemical ingredients that they block UV rays. “And keep in mind that breakouts can come from any of the ingredients in the product, not just the active ingredients in the sunscreen,” he says. “Breakouts can commonly be caused by other emollients, fragrances, preservatives, or other ingredients.” Because of this, he says the best way to avoid developing a sunscreen breakout or rash is to look for formulas labeled non-comedogenic. Generally speaking, he says that zinc oxide and titanium dioxide (both are mineral sunscreens) are non-comedogenic.
The problem with sunscreen rashes is that they don’t always show up right away, which can make it hard to pinpoint the real complexion culprit. “It’s a delayed skin reaction that typically develops 12 to 72 hours after exposure,” says King.
In this episode of The Well+Good Podcast, Adeline Kikam, DO, FAAD, a Texas-based board-certified dermatologist, gets real about the gaps in skincare, SPF education, and why to wear sunscreen. Sunlight on *all* skin tones is very important.
What does a sunscreen rash look like?
Sunscreen rashes can take a couple of forms. For one, they can appear as tiny outbreaks of white pustules as a result of the pore-clogging ingredients in SPF; on the other, they can look like traditional inflamed rashes. (FYI: If you develop full-blown sun blisters, the sun 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 made up of small bumps that coalesce into larger bumps,” says Schweiger Dermatology Group board-certified dermatologist Nava Greenfield. , MD.
More importantly, sunscreen rashes will only show up when the sunscreen has been applied. So if you only applied SPF to his body but his face is breaking out, the sunscreen isn’t at fault.
“As with most types of contact dermatitis, an allergy to sunscreens should have a sharp line of demarcation,” says board-certified dermatologist Dustin Portela, DO, FAAD. “This means that it’s often very clear where you applied it and where you didn’t apply it from the abrupt geographic pattern of the eruption.”
What should you do if you get a sunscreen rash?
If you determine that the breakout or rash you are experiencing is due to the sunscreen you used, stop using it immediately.
Before tossing out the breakout-causing formula, though, Portela suggests checking the label. “It’s important to check the label and determine what type of sunscreen you’re using,” she says. “Although sunscreens are safe, there is a small percentage of people who may have an allergic reaction to some of the ingredients.”
In general, she 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’re 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 milder, which is why they’re often found in baby sunscreens.
While sunscreen rashes are most often linked to UV-protective ingredients, King says 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, rendering them ineffective and potentially irritating to the skin,” he says. That’s why most sunscreen bottles and tubes explicitly say to keep out of direct sunlight and store in a cool, dry place.
How long does it take for a sunscreen rash to fade?
Sunscreen rashes can clear up in days to a couple of weeks. To offer your inflamed skin some relief in the meantime, King recommends washing your face and/or body and following with an emollient to help maintain the skin’s barrier. If your skin is particularly itchy, he recommends looking into over-the-counter hydrocortisone. (While you may be inclined to try Benadryl to ease your symptoms, Portela says it won’t do much to address the underlying cause of the rash, although it might make falling asleep with an itchy skin problem a bit easier.)
If after two weeks you still experience redness and/or itchiness in the areas where sunscreen was applied, see your doctor for the best steps to take.
How to Avoid Developing a Sunscreen Rash
If you have particularly reactive skin, you may want to skip an SPF category overall. As we mentioned earlier, chemical sunscreens tend to be more triggering than physical UV blockers. Here’s why: “The chemical ingredients in sunscreens absorb into the skin while the physical mineral sunscreens sit on the skin,” says King. “I think this is one of the reasons why chemical ingredients are more likely to cause reactions.”
Of the various chemical sunscreen ingredients on the market, King says oxybenzone is one of the most problematic. “It’s been linked to irritation, sensitization and allergies,” he reveals. (This is why many chemical sunscreens, like Shiseido Clear Sunscreen Stick SPF 50+ ($30), are specifically marketed as “oxybenzone-free.”)
Specific chemical ingredients aside, Greenfield says that SPF chemical ingredients in general are usually combined with more preservatives to make the overall formula more stable. The downside is that these preservatives can cause adverse skin reactions, which can manifest as a sunscreen rash.
Because of this, you may want to go with only mineral sunscreens. However, according to Portela, that’s not really necessary, unless you can unequivocally determine that the chemical ingredients are the problem. It’s quite possible that your skin simply doesn’t fit the other ingredients in the overall formula. As such, your best bet is to look for the top-rated SPFs, and always do a sample test on a small area of skin before applying the product to your face or entire body.
The good news is that there are plenty of dermatologist-approved sunscreen formulas to choose from for your face and body. You’ll even find SPF in makeup and skincare products.
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