1. Health

Wearing sunscreen is a must, but what if you're allergic?
Published Jul. 9, 2015

Summer fun means lots of sun.

But in the Sunshine State, especially, we have to be extra careful. Sun exposure is linked to sun damage, premature aging and skin cancers, including melanoma, the most dangerous form of skin cancer.

Wearing sunscreen should be a part of daily life. It helps to prevent premature aging and cuts the risk of developing melanoma by half.

But what if sunscreen triggers an allergic skin reaction?

With millions of people wearing sunscreens regularly, we are seeing more reactions to these products. There is a multitude of sunscreen products, all designed to absorb or block harmful ultraviolet radiation, but some chemicals in them can cause allergic reactions for some people.

Reactions to sunscreens typically are allergic contact dermatitis, irritant dermatitis or allergic contact photosensitive dermatitis.

Symptoms of contact dermatitis are a rash, redness, swelling, itching and blisters. The only difference between contact dermatitis and photosensitive dermatitis is that the latter occurs only after sunscreen-coated skin has been exposed to sunlight. Irritant dermatitis occurs when chemicals damage the outer layer of the skin, leading to inflammation.

Most sunscreens contain multiple active ingredients and a slew of inactive ingredients, making it difficult to pinpoint the source of the trouble. An allergist can perform a patch test to try to find out which components of the sunscreen are problematic for you. Patch testing can detect delayed sensitivity reactions to chemicals without the use of needles. The test is done on your back and evaluated at 48 hours, 72 hours and sometimes even later. Photopatch testing should be considered as well.

If you are allergic to a component in the sunscreen you are using, it's possible that a different brand or a different preparation will be free of the offending agent or agents. We often find that people are better able to tolerate mineral, powder sunscreens, which contain zinc oxide and titanium dioxide and are not rubbed into the skin.

Sunscreen should be like a second skin to you, and you should never leave home without it on. If you do have an allergic reaction to sunscreen, consider working with an allergist to find a product that will protect your skin without irritating it. Be safe this summer, and be kind to your skin.

Dr. Mona V. Mangat is a board-certified allergist and immunologist at Bay Area Allergy & Asthma in St. Petersburg. Find her at If you have a question for the doctor, email her at Your question may be answered in a future column.


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