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How to Treat a Reaction to Sunscreen

By Sierra Rose ; Updated July 27, 2017

Dermatologists agree that slathering on sunscreen is a must to avoid skin cancer. But if you’ve got sensitive skin, you might experience a sunscreen reaction—either contact dermatitis (the medical term for skin irritation), an often itchy, red rash caused by allergy to chemical ingredients, or breakouts caused by oils. Sunscreens containing PABA (para-aminobenzoic acid) have even been known to make a small group of people more sensitive to the sun, increasing sunburn. If you’ve been a victim of a sunscreen reaction, here’s how to treat it.

Treating Contact Dermatitis Caused by Sunscreen

  1. Remove the sunscreen you suspect caused the reaction using water and a mild soap (ideally, the bottle will indicate it is “mild” or for “sensitive skin”). Gently pat skin dry with a clean towel; rubbing will only irritate skin further.

  2. Apply hydro-cortisone cream 1 percent (available in most drugstores) sparingly to the irritated skin. Make sure to follow directions, as some hydro-cortisone creams (usually those with high concentrations) can be dangerous in large doses or when applied to certain areas.

  3. If nothing seems to work or you’re increasingly experiencing reactions, make an appointment with a dermatologist. Bring in all formulas that may have caused your skin to react. A doctor should be able to properly diagnose the cause of your reaction and prescribe an appropriate treatment.

Treating Breakouts Caused by Sunscreen

  1. Remove the sunscreen with a mild wash made for acne-prone skin. Gently pat skin dry with a clean towel.

  2. Apply an over-the-counter acne medication with salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide to affected areas. Alternatively, you could use both types of medicine, alternating salicylic acid in the morning and benzoyl peroxide, which tends to be drying, in the evening.

  3. If breakouts worsen, visit a dermatologist. Bring the sunscreen you suspect caused the reaction. A dermatologist will be able to identify whether your acne is caused by the sunscreen or another factor.

  4. Tip

    If your skin has a tendency to react to sunscreens, try a fragrance-free formula made for sensitive skin or opt for formulas containing physical blocking agents such as titanium or zinc, which sit on your skin rather than being absorbed by it. People with acne-prone skin should stick to sunscreens labeled as non-comedogenic and oil-free. Test new sunscreens by dabbing a dime-size amount on an area such as the forearm. If no reaction appears by the next day, you're good to go. If you do react, bring the sunscreen to your dermatologist, who might be able to identify the ingredient causing the reaction.


    Babies less than 6 months old may have skin too sensitive for sunscreen. Either keep them covered by shading or bundling them, or keep them out of the sun. If you wish to apply sunscreen, first consult your baby's pediatrician for advice.

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