Is It Allergy or Why Is Sunscreen Making My Skin Red and Itchy?

Published: July 4, 2018
Photo: Getty

Question: I get allergic dermatitis with some fragrances (which I avoid). Now, I’m struggling with sunscreens. I’ve tried a couple of fragrance-free ones, but when I put them on my face or chest, my skin turns red and is very itchy. I’m avoiding sunscreen for now, but don’t want my skin to burn in the summer. Can you suggest what might be triggering this reaction?

Dr. Skotnicki: True allergic dermatitis to sunscreen is relatively rare. It is usually a delayed reaction that occurs when sunscreen-covered skin is exposed to ultraviolet light, and the resultant scaly red eruption lasts for no less than one to three weeks.

Dermatologists use skin patch testing in such cases to determine if a patient is allergic to a sunscreen ingredient.

However, the majority of skin reactions to sunscreens are irritant in nature, with burning, redness and itching that occurs immediately, or within minutes, of application. These effects may last for just a few hours or a few days.

Avoiding Chemicals, Fragrance

With both allergic and irritant skin reactions, the ingredients in chemical sunscreens are most often to blame. In these situations, I recommend “no chemical” sunscreen or sunblock, which uses only physical active ingredients: titanium and/or zinc oxide.

Nonetheless, skin reactions can still occur to inactive ingredients like fragrance, preservatives or lanolin alcohol, which may be present in some physical sunblocks, too.

As a precaution, spot test a new sunblock on a small area of skin before liberally applying it.

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