Why Chemical Sunscreens Can Make You Breakout

 Sunscreen allergy vs. Vehicle Allergy

When you look at your sunscreen label there will be active ingredients listed and inactive ingredients listed. Listed below is information on which sunscreens can cause allergic reactions. These reactions do not happen commonly and more often, your skin is irritated* or truly allergic** to what the sunscreen is mixed into otherwise known as its vehicle.  See the bottom of this post for an extended list of additional, common vehicle allergies.

*stinging and/or burning, raw

**similar to poison ivy, super itchy

Allergic Reactions to Sunscreen Ingredient Benzophenone-3 (Oxybenzone)

If you've had a negative skin reaction to sunscreen, it's likely because of Oxybenzone.  It is the most common sunscreen allergen, which results in an itchy rash, even if you only wear the sunscreen while indoors. It is most common photoallergen, meaning an itchy rash may occur only when the product is exposed to sunlight.

Other sunscreen agents known to induce allergic reactions are the cinnamates, and avobenzone.

What you should do if you have a sunscreen allergy.

If you do have a sunscreen allergy, metal oxide sunscreens such as titanium dioxide, iron oxide and zinc oxide are suitable. These types of sunscreens have not been shown to cause allergic contact dermatitis, although as stated above, what they are mixed into, also known as their vehicle, may give you a reaction. Most importantly, these sunscreens have been proven to be safe and effective sunscreen agents.

Tips for safely determining if you're allergic to your sunscreen. 

If you chose to self-test a product for an allergy, it should be done so with caution. Look to the bottom of this post to see if any of the ingredients listed are in your product. 

If you had hives or shortness of breath, touch swelling, etc. during an allergic reaction, then do NOT try to test yourself at home. Apply a small amount (nickel or dime cent sized area) of the product to a small tender area of skin such as the bend of your arm or neck for 3 days in a row. Examine the area each day and if no reaction occurs, you are likely not allergic. If it is not itchy but uncomfortable, you should still avoid using that particular SPF because it may just be an irritation.


What if I have Rosacea? 

Chemical formulations tend to be easier to rub into the skin. However, when the chemicals react with the sun, it can release additional heat onto your skin. Therefore, chemical products are NOT great products if you have acne rosacea.

On the other side, physical sunscreens work like a shield, sitting sit on the surface of your skin and deflect the harmful rays. Physical sunscreens contain zinc oxide, titanium dioxide and possibly iron oxide, which gives a tint. See our post on mineral versus chemical sunscreens for more information.  

As it relates to breakouts, mineral sunscreens are often preferable because their ingredients are unlikely to cause allergic reactions or skin irritation; several chemical blocker active ingredients are classified by our metric as low-prevalence allergens, but physical blockers are not allergens. 

In summary, if you have the condition of blushing, flushing and sometimes pimples, it can be worsened by using chemical blockers.    

Common Allergens in Sunscreens

  •  Compositae (Asteraceae) mix
  • Methylchloroisothiazolinone
  • Iodopropynyl butylcarbamate
  • Quaternium-15
  • Diazolidinyl urea
  • DMDM hydantoin
  • Bronopol
  • Imidazolidinyl urea
  • Cocamidopropyl betaine
  • Propylene glycol
  • Decyl glucoside
  • Lauryl glucoside

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