Skin reactions to sunscreen can be the result of an allergy or sensitivity to one or more ingredients. Some reactions can occur immediately after applying sunscreen. At other times, you may notice skin irritation hours after using sunscreen. 

If you have contact dermatitis, and a particular sunscreen triggers a reaction, you must avoid using that specific product and switch to a sunscreen that’s safe for your skin. The first step, however, is finding out which ingredients may be causing your reaction.

There is a number of types of contact dermatitis, and in this blog, allergy specialist Ulrike Ziegner, MD, of Riviera Allergy Medical Center in Redondo Beach, California, explains what they are and how they can be linked with sunscreen.

Irritant contact dermatitis

Irritant contact dermatitis is the most common form of dermatitis. This type occurs when you have a nonallergic sensitivity to any of the ingredients in sunscreen. You’re at a higher risk of having irritant contact dermatitis if you have a history of eczema. People with eczema have an outer layer of skin that doesn’t function normally, making it very sensitive.

Allergic contact dermatitis

It’s possible to have a skin allergy to any material or substance, including ingredients in sunscreen. Allergic contact dermatitis involves an overactive immune response that results from contact with an allergen on your skin. Fragrances and preservatives in sunscreen and other skin care products are the most common culprits in allergic contact dermatitis.

Photocontact dermatitis

Photocontact dermatitis accounts for a very small percentage of contact dermatitis. Some individuals experience an interaction between sun exposure and certain ingredients in sunscreen that causes the skin to react and become irritated. If you observe that your skin looks sunburned after using sunscreen, this is a clue that you may have photocontact dermatitis. It usually occurs on the face, arms, chest, and neck.

Symptoms of contact dermatitis

Noticing irritation in the area that you apply sunscreen is a warning sign of contact dermatitis. Here are some signs to look out for:

  • Red rash
  • Dry, cracked skin
  • Burning or tenderness
  • Swelling
  • Bumps
  • Blisters
  • Ulcerations
  • Oozing and crusting

Symptoms can range from mild to severe. If you suspect that sunscreen is causing irritation to your skin, stop using it and contact a specialist.

How can I avoid a reaction to sunscreen?

Finding out the ingredient that’s causing your reaction and using a sunscreen that doesn’t contain that ingredient is the best way to avoid having a reaction. Many people with contact dermatitis react to fragrances or certain preservatives in sunscreen. Sunscreens that are safe for sensitive skin are typically free of dyes, fragrances, and synthetic preservatives.

Diagnosing contact dermatitis

First, Dr. Ziegner will discuss your symptoms and the products you use. She’ll also go over your medical history and perform a physical exam. If she suspects you have contact dermatitis, she’ll perform testing.

One test Dr. Ziegner may use is a patch test. With this test, a patch that contains tiny amounts of suspect substances is placed on your skin. In 48 hours, Dr. Ziegner checks your skin, and she checks it again in 72 hours. Once Dr. Ziegner identifies the problem chemical in your sunscreen, you’ll know which sunscreens to avoid.

If you’re struggling with unexplained rashes, we can get to the root of the problem. To learn more, book an appointment online or over the phone with Riviera Allergy Medical Center today.

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