Sun allergy caused by sunscreens
A sun allergy caused by sunscreen? Yes it is possible. There are certain chemicals that can cause sun allergy. And some of these chemicals are actually present in sunscreens.
On this page I would like to share my experience about my own allergy. It took me several years to find out what I know now. I am allergic to one or more chemicals, which are found in sunscreens and in other creams that block the effect of sunlight. The allergic reaction is not caused directly by the chemical, but the chemical makes my skin allergic to the sun. If I apply the cream but stay indoors, not much happens. But if I apply it and then expose the skin to the sun, the effect is a serious allergic reaction, red rash, swollen skin, sometimes small blisters.
On this page I will relate how I first got it and how bit by bit I discovered that it is a sun allergy that is triggered by one or more chemicals that are present in some sunscreens. After many years I now finally know that what I have is called “photoallergic eruption”.
Please read my experiences below, and contact me if you have additional information or tips.
On separate pages I have now prepared a selection of comments by readers.
18 October 1992
I used (in Nicaragua) a cream against sun burn. But then I found out that I seemed to be allergic for it. The skin got red and irritated and it was itching a lot. After 10 days it was still not over and I went to a doctor who gave me a cream which helped very good. It was called: DEXAMETASONA 0.2%
I had a similar skin problem after using IKEA sun cream (milk) factor 12 and factor 20. It lasted about 10 days before disappearing without any treatment.
Several times in between these two experiences, I have used another type of sun cream (Hema) which did not give me an allergy problem.
10 August 1997
Again an allergic reaction, this time after using sunblock of the type "Ambre Solaire". It was called a Sunblock Zonnemelk, factor 30 (bought in Netherlands). I was outdoors with it for two hours of which about 1 hour under the shade of trees. It seems that the combination of the liquid and the sun caused the allergy. This suncream contains "een vochtregulerend bestanddeel met karité en jojoba"…. it also contains "… een antiradicaal bestanddeel (vitamine E)." For the rest no information about the contents, but it is called "dermatologisch getest" and "hypoallergeen" and "waterresistant".
On 17 August (one week later) it is still itching a lot.
First week of September it was still itching, although the skin looked better now. Around 10 or 15 Sept, more then a month after the problem started, it was finally cured.
21 October 2001
I used a sunscreen today and went in the sun for about 45 minutes. I developed an allergic reaction, red, slightly swollen skin, itchy on places where skin with the sunscreen was exposed to the sun, especially on my back, shoulders and neck and in the inside curve of my arms.
Similar problems occurred with me before with other types of sunscreens. Therefore I had this time tested this one for 3 consecutive days 17-19 October on a spot on my chest. I did not get any problems so I thought the product would be safe for me. But that was without exposure to the sun. So now, since I still got a problem, I think that it is maybe the combination the sunscreen together with exposure to the sun, which gives me the allergy problem.
Here are all the details from the bottle of sunscreen which caused my allergy:
Complete 99% UVA-Block
Suitable for sensitive skin
Potassium cetyl phosphate
Hydrogenated palm glycerides citrate
I looked now for more information on the Internet. One site warned that some photosensitive persons have difficulties finding sunscreens they can tolerate because allergy or photo allergy to the sun screening chemicals can occur. It specifically mentioned 3 chemicals:
- PABA (= para-aminobenzoic acid)
- Butyl methoxydibenzoylmethane
This last one was present in the sunscreen I used, so maybe it is the one causing my problem?
One website recommended using Water-Babies sunscreen as it does not contain these chemicals. I have since tried Water-Babies on several occasions and it did not give me any problems.
Please note that I am not recommending WaterBabies, I am just mentioning it because it works for me.
28 February 2005
I have tried another sunscreen, NIVEA for kids. It gave me also an allergy, but not as serious as in the past. Maybe the problem was less serious because I did not get too much sun exposure after using it. I won’t use it again.
17 March 2005
Today I got an allergy again. Not because of sunscreen. But this morning I used NIVEA VISAGE Q10 anti-rimpel dag-crème (an anti wrinkle day cream). I bought this last January in Netherlands. I had used it maybe once or twice before but then I didn’t go out in the sunlight. Today I used it and went for about 1 hour in the sun, but under shade of coconut trees. Within 3 hours I felt itching. Now my face is red and itchy, and also the top of my hands, where I probably got it by touching my face.
The packing of this cream does not show any ingredients.
I am wondering if the night cream version of this product would have been safe for me, but I don't want to take the risk.
12 April 2008
Bad luck again. I accidentally used some cream on my face, which happened to be a “day-cream” with sun protection included (Olay total effects 7-in-1 anti-ageing cream, normal, SPF 15). I used it in the morning and after that have been exposed to sunlight for perhaps ½ to 1 hour. In the late afternoon already I felt that my face was itching. In the night I woke up and couldn’t open my eyes. My entire face was swollen and itchy. In the morning I had to use my hands to open my eyes if I wanted to see something. The itching had also spread to my neck and also on the back of my hands (where I did not apply the cream, but these areas had been exposed to sunlight).
I went to a hospital, where they gave me a steroid injection, and also some antihistamine pills (Chlorphen = Chlorphenamine = Chlorpheniramine). Antihistamine is a drug which counteracts histamine in the body and is used for treating allergies. Another pill I got was Prednisolone 5 mg which is a corticosteroid drug. I had to take it twice daily after meal with plenty of water, for a period of 5 days.
After 3 days my face was relatively normal again, only still slightly red. After 10 days (and still taking the antihistamine every day), my face and neck still feels slightly itchy, but my hands are normal now.
I have a feeling that the injection and/or medicines I took have helped at least a bit. Compared to earlier experiences, the rash disappeared a bit quicker, and it was less itchy, although after 10 days it is still not completely cured.
This day cream which I had used did not show any ingredients so it doesn’t help me find out which is the culprit chemical.
22 April 2008
I have done some more internet research on my sun allergy problem. I will summarize here some of the information I found.
Sun allergy is an immune system reaction to the light of the sun. There are several types of sun allergy, all with different backgrounds and with different symptoms. Some of the more common types are:
- Polymorphous light eruption (PMLE)
- This is a itchy rash on sun-exposed skin. This affects people after winter period when in spring they start spending more time in the sun. Usually after some time the skin becomes less sensitive (hardened) and the rash disappears during summer, but returning again next spring.
- Photoallergic eruption
- This is a sun allergy that is triggered by sunlight on a chemical that was applied to the skin. There are different chemicals that can cause this effect, for example chemicals which are ingredients in sunscreens, fragrances, cosmetics, or antibiotic creams. Also chemicals in some medicines can cause this type of sun allergy.
- Solar urticaria
- This is a rare form of sun allergy, especially in young women, which produces large, itchy red bumps (hives).
It is clear that my sun allergy is of the “photoallergic eruption” type, and it is caused by one or more chemicals that are ingredients in sunscreens or in day-creams that contain sun protection factor (spf).
The symptoms of “photoallergic eruption” are either an itchy red rash or tiny blisters. In my case it is especially the itchy red rash, but on my hands I also get tiny blisters.
Apparently the chemicals that cause the sun allergy travel through the body, because I get the symptoms also on parts of the skin that were not treated with the cream, but which were exposed to sunlight.
I read somewhere that Photoallergic eruption is a form of delayed hypersensitivity reaction. This means that skin symptoms may not begin until one to two days after sun exposure. In my last case the first symptoms started about 8 hours after applying the chemical (7 hours after exposure to the sun) with itchy skin. Maximum effect was after about 20 hours, with swollen skin and itchy red rash on all sun exposed areas.
The allergy I have is called “photoallergic eruption”. It is a sun allergy triggered by a chemical(s) applied to the skin. The chemical on its own does not cause the allergy, but the allergic reaction comes after exposure to sunlight.
I am not sure yet which chemical(s) are causing my sun allergy. It could be PABA (= para-aminobenzoic acid), or Benzophenone, or Butyl methoxydibenzoylmethane, but it also can be something else.
My conclusion at this moment is that I have to avoid any product that contains sunscreen or sun protection factors. The only sunscreen which I can use safely is the earlier mentioned Water Babies. Unfortunately this is not available where I live (but I got some bottles from USA) so I may have to experiment a bit further with other sunscreens.
I recently found more information about different types of sunscreens and perhaps one day I will risk testing Neutrogena SPF 45 Sunblock with Parsol, which could possibly be another product that is safe for me. I am a bit worried about testing it, even on a small spot, because from experience I know that the allergic reaction is not limited to the area where the chemical was applied. I will write more if I know more. Please share your information with me if you have similar experiences.
More information: Comments by readers
Since I have published this page, many people have sent me their comments and experiences. I have compiled a selection of these comments of the last few years, as they provide additional information on experiences with products that cause allergies, products that were found to be safe, and medicines that are used to treat the allergies.
Please note the clear differences between individual persons. A product that causes allergy problems for one person may be safe for another.
Click here to read these comments: