Question: My daughter is apparently allergic to many of the sunscreens I have tried on her and gets an itchy, burning rash. What is it in the sunscreens that is causing this reaction?
Answer: There could be many different chemicals causing a skin reaction.
Most commonly, allergic reactions to sunscreens are caused by one of the original UVB sunscreen protection ingredients called para-aminobenzoid acid or PABA.
Read sunscreen labels and look for refined and newer ingredients called PABA esters (such as glycerol PABA, padimate A and padimate O) instead of the original staining, reaction-forming PABA.
New “broad spectrum” sunscreen ingredients
This year, the FDA requires sunscreens to protect against both UVB and UVA rays (labeled “broad-spectrum”), so new sunscreen ingredients have been developed and included such as include Mexoryl SX (ecamsule) and Parsol 1789 (avobenzone) which protect against UVA rays.
Physical sunscreens including titanium dioxide and zinc oxide have been around for decades. Remember Zinc Oxide on the noses of lifeguards back in the day? These ingredients physically block and scatter UV rays. These singular sunscreen formulas have no other chemical ingredients and so may be a better choice for sensitive skins. They also go on thicker and appear “whiter,” but they also stay on longer and are gentler to sensitive skins.
Despite advances in technology, formulating products with these ingredients without the skin-whitening effect has proven difficult. Zinc oxide has recently been approved by the FDA, like titanium dioxide, in microsized or ultrafine grades as an allowable active ingredient in sunscreen products with the ability to provide more full-spectrum protection. Zinc oxide is less whitening in this form than titanium dioxide and provides better UV protection. You can now find sunscreen products that contain these ingredients in combination with other sunscreen ingredients to increase their stability in water and sun and decrease unwanted “whiteness.”
But remember sunscreen protection is all in the proper application. And, a lot has changed in how we recommend sunscreen to be purchased and used, so it pays to stay up on the news about sunscreen so you don’t get burned (literally!)
Other buzz words for sensitive skin
You will notice lots of colorful kids’ sunscreen products on store shelves you might want to stay away from. Try to avoid any sunscreen products containing dyes or perfumes, which are known allergens. And, for acne-prone or oily sensitive skins, definitely check for specific products labeled, “non-comedogenic” or “won’t clog pores.”
I cannot stress enough how important it is to be aware of sunscreen ingredients, especially when allergic reactions are concerned, and take the time to stand in the store aisles and read those labels!