Allergic reactions to sunscreen: what you need to know!

With a recent Canadian case of suspected photoallergy to sunscreen trending on social media, we explore this topic further…

Late last month in Canada 14-month-old Kyla Fudge suffered a suspected allergic reaction to sunscreen on her cheeks and nose, in a case has come to notice of parents and dermatologists right around the world.

Sunscreens play an important preventative role against the acute and long term effects of overexposure to the sun, including sunburn, skin damage, premature ageing of the skin and skin cancer. As people have become more conscious of the benefits of sun protection, more sunscreen is being used.

Allergic reactions to sunscreens are uncommon, but can occur when an individual is allergic to one or more of the ingredients contained within the product.

Sunscreen allergy
There are 2 types of allergy associated with sunscreen:

  1. Allergic contact dermatitis can develop when the sunscreen is applied to the skin and a person has a sensitivity to a particular ingredient in the product. This triggers the immune system to react, resulting in the skin becoming red, irritated and itchy.
  2. Photoallergic contact dermatitis occurs when there is an interaction between ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun and a specific ingredient in the sunscreen in sensitive individuals. A rash develops in areas where the sunscreen has been applied and exposed to sunlight, commonly seen on the face, arms, or a ‘V’ pattern on the chest mimicking the line of a t-shirt.

Physical & Chemical sunscreens
Sunscreens contain UV filters which can be physical or chemical. Physical sunscreens help to protect the skin by filtering out the sun’s UV rays, by acting as a physical barrier, and reflecting UV radiation away from the skin (e.g. when it contains filters such as titanium dioxide or zinc oxide).

Although these sunscreens tend to cause less allergic reactions, people have been less inclined to use them as they can give a white appearance to the skin.

Chemical sunscreens act by absorbing UV radiation. They are more cosmetically acceptable because they do not appear opaque. Some of the chemical absorber ingredients used in sunscreens may be more sensitizing for some people than for others.

In addition, products can contain fragrances and preservatives to which an individual might also have a sensitivity, often making a diagnosis more challenging.

Seek medical advice
Those who have experienced a reaction to a sunscreen should stop using it and seek medical advice if required. Sometimes if clinically indicated, referral to a dermatologist for patch testing or photopatch testing of the sunscreen and individual sunscreen components, may be necessary to determine which chemical or ingredient is causing the allergy.

If you have a previous history of sunscreen allergy, it may be useful to apply a small amount to the skin as a test before applying to a wider area.

Enjoy the sun safely
Sunscreens play an important role in reducing the risk of skin cancer and their benefit outweighs the risk of potential allergic reaction.

Sunscreens should be used in conjunction with other sun protection measures, such as clothing and shade.

Remember the five ‘Ss’ of sun safety – Slip on a t-shirt, Slop on (broad-spectrum) sunscreen factor 30+, Slap on a hat, Slide on sunglasses with UV protection, and Seek shade, particularly between 11am-3pm, when UV rays are strongest.