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Hypoallergenic sunscreen: Do you really need it?

If you have sensitive skin, you may want to consider this kind of sun protection product.

Curology Team Avatar
by Curology Team
Updated on Sep 27, 2023 • 9 min read
Medically reviewed by Meredith Hartle, DO
Applying Hypoallergenic Sunscreen
Curology Team Avatar
by Curology Team
Updated on Sep 27, 2023 • 9 min read
Medically reviewed by Meredith Hartle, DO
We’re here to share what we know — but don’t take it as medical advice. Talk to your medical provider if you have questions.

When it comes to picking a sunscreen, you have a few choices to make. Between mineral sunscreens, chemical sunscreenssprays, and lotions, it may take a few rounds of trial and error to figure out which product may be the most beneficial for your skin and lifestyle. Still, it’s easy to get overwhelmed and confused by all the options available to you, especially when there are so many labels to decipher. For instance, what exactly is hypoallergenic sunscreen? And is it right for your skin?

Spoiler alert: Not everyone needs a hypoallergenic sunscreen, but some may benefit from using one. Here we’ll dive into their pros and cons so you can determine if they sound like helpful skincare products for you.

What is hypoallergenic sunscreen?

Before we get into different sunscreens, let’s discuss what “hypoallergenic” actually means. The term refers to products that manufacturers claim result in fewer allergic reactions than others. For this reason, they’re intended for people with sensitive skin types.¹

Interestingly, the term isn’t regulated by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) as it relates to cosmetic product labels.² Essentially, skincare companies can decide what this term means to them, leading some dermatology providers to say that it doesn’t mean much. In general, some ingredients are more likely to cause allergic reactions than others—and these are the ones that you shouldn’t find in hypoallergenic products.

Non-allergenic products, meaning products that are guaranteed to never produce an allergic reaction, don’t exist.³ In fact, one study found that 93% of the children’s topical products tested contained at least one allergen.⁴ Yet, if you know you have sensitive skin, leaning toward hypoallergenic products may be a good idea, considering their gentler formulas. 

Sunscreens in particular are the most prevalent photo-allergens in North America.⁵ So if any of the following apply to you, you may want to consider using a hypoallergenic sunscreen:

  • You have sensitive skin or know that you are prone to conditions caused by allergens.

  • You know you’re allergic to a specific skincare ingredient.

  • You have an autoimmune condition. People with these types of conditions (such as lupus) may be more susceptible to contact dermatitis caused by sunscreens with allergens.⁶

If you have any concerns on particular ingredients or products, check for the ingredient on the product label, and work with a medical professional (like the dermatology providers at Curology) to determine which products may be most beneficial for your skin.

Causes and symptoms of allergic reactions from sunscreen

While sunscreen is an essential part of every skincare routine and an important way to protect yourself from the sun’s UV rays, some products can cause unwanted reactions. Here are some reasons you may get an allergic reaction to sunscreen:

  1. You have an allergy to the active ingredients—aka, the ones used to protect your skin from the sun. In our broad spectrum sunscreen, we use zinc oxide to protect against UVA and UVB rays which can reduce the risk of irritation.

  2. You have an allergy to fragrance, plant-based ingredients, or chemical ingredients in the sunscreen (such as preservatives).

  3. Your immune system reacts to a specific allergen, which can lead to allergic contact dermatitis. These reactions may take up to three days to appear, and can happen if you use the same product over and over again.⁷

  4. Your sunscreen reacts with the sun. Allergic photocontact dermatitis occurs when a substance reacts with light.⁸

The longer an allergen is exposed to your skin, the more severe a reaction can get.⁹ So if you notice any of the following, which are all symptoms of allergic reactions to sunscreen, stop using your product until you can get to the bottom of the issue.¹⁰

  • Red rash

  • Swelling

  • Itching

  • Dry skin

  • Skin tightening

  • Blisters

You’ll typically experience symptoms on the parts of your body that came into contact with the allergen—in this case, where you applied the sunscreen. However, allergic reactions can sometimes spread to other areas. How long the sunscreen stayed on your skin, how much you applied, and how allergic you are to a certain ingredient can all influence the severity of your reaction.¹¹

That said, it’s not always possible to tell if you have an allergic reaction solely from your symptoms. When in doubt, stop the product you’re using and seek professional help.

What to look for and avoid in sunscreen

While everyone’s skin reacts to sunscreen differently, there are a few general guidelines you can follow if you’re considering buying a hypoallergenic sunscreen. Here’s what to look for:

Sunscreens with low allergen levels

In one study, brands like Thinksport, Babyganics, Australian Gold, Banana Boat (Simply Protect, Kids, and Sports lines), and CVS (Clear Zinc line) all showed low allergen levels.¹² No sunscreens are completely allergen-free, but specific products from these brands may be less likely to irritate your skin.

Physical (aka mineral) sunscreens

In general, the active ingredients in broad spectrum physical sunscreens are less likely to cause allergic reactions, but some of the sun-protecting ones in chemical sunscreens might. Active ingredients that can be an allergen for some, including avobenzone, octocrylene, and oxybenzone, are more common in broad spectrum chemical sunscreens. Mineral versions can still contain inactive ingredients that may irritate your skin, but they’re less likely to cause an allergic reaction overall.¹³ Physical sunscreens can get a bad rap, however, for leaving behind white streaks, so try one like our broad spectrum mineral Sunscreen, which blends into every skin tone while minimizing white cast. 

Sunscreens without fragrances

Research shows that fragrance is the most common allergen in sunscreens.¹⁴ And while some may irritate your skin more than others, there are so many different types of sunscreen fragrances out there, it can be hard to tell which ones to avoid. So although that coconut-scented bottle may sound appealing, resist temptation and go for an unscented bottle to stay on the safe side.

Broad spectrum sunscreens with an SPF under 99

Most bottles with an SPF of 100 are chemical sunscreens—so if you’re looking for a potentially less reaction-inducing mineral version, go for an SPF under 99.¹⁵

On the flip side, if you’re looking for a hypoallergenic product, there are some ingredients you may want to avoid, including the following:¹⁶

  • Methylchloroisothiazolinone

  • Methylisothiazolinone

  • Iodopropynyl butylcarbamate

  • Quaternium-15

  • Diazolidinyl urea

  • DMDM hydantoin 

  • Compositae (Asteraceae) mix

  • Myroxylon pereirae

  • Benzophenone-3

  • Homosalate¹⁷

Create a personalized skincare routine

For some, hypoallergenic sunscreen may help reduce the likelihood of developing symptoms of contact dermatitis. But beyond being a broad-spectrum, water resistant product with an SPF of at least 30, everyone’s definition of an effective sunscreen will look different. If you have questions about what ingredients you should look for and which are best avoided, our licensed dermatology providers have answers.

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When you sign up with Curology, you’ll be paired with one of our providers, who will complete a personalized treatment plan for you. To take the first step toward personalized skincare and get all your questions about sunscreen answered, claim your offer* today.

We’re here to tell you what we know. That’s why our information is evidence-based and fact-checked by medical experts. Still, everyone’s skin is unique—the best way to get advice is to talk to your healthcare provider.

FAQs

What are the least irritating sunscreen ingredients?

Inorganic filtering ingredients, like titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, have a lower potential of causing an allergic reaction.¹⁸ If you’re not sure where to find these ingredients, start with our broad spectrum Sunscreen and broad-spectrum SPF 30 Lip Balm—both use zinc oxide to protect against UVA and UVB rays with minimal risk of irritation. And if you have acne-prone or oily skin, zinc oxide also won’t clog your pores. 

Also, physical (aka mineral) sunscreens may be less likely to have allergy-inducing active ingredients than chemical versions.

What ingredient in sunscreen causes allergic reactions?

A variety of ingredients in sunscreen can cause allergic reactions, including fragrances, preservatives, active ingredients (aka sun-blockers), moisturizing additives, and more. Here are a few to look out for:

  • Methylchloroisothiazolinone

  • Methylisothiazolinone

  • Iodopropynyl butylcarbamate

  • Quaternium-15

Different people may have different reactions, so it’s a good idea to know what you’re allergic to before shopping for sunscreen. Make sure to look up all the alternate or scientific names for the ingredients too, so you’ll be well-prepared to read bottle labels. When in doubt, perform a patch test first.

Is there hypoallergenic sunscreen?

Yes and no. While no sunscreen is 100% non-allergenic, there are some that may have better ingredients for sensitive skin than others. The term “hypoallergenic” isn’t regulated by the FDA, so companies can determine what it means to them when making product labels. Your best bet to avoid an allergic reaction is to know what ingredients irritate your skin, and have a general idea of what ingredients to avoid. And don’t forget to seek a professional’s help if you need it!

• • •

P.S. We did the homework, so you don’t have to:

  1. U.S. Food & Drug Administration. “Hypoallergenic” Cosmetics. (2022, February 25).

  2. U.S. Food & Drug Administration. “Hypoallergenic” Cosmetics. Ibid.

  3. U.S. Food & Drug Administration. “Hypoallergenic” Cosmetics. Ibid.

  4. Lazzarini, R., et al. Evaluation of the presence of allergens in children's products available for sale in a big city. An Bras Dermatol. (June 2018).

  5. Guenther, J., et al. Photoallergic Contact Dermatitis: No Fun in the Sun. Cutis. (November 2022).

  6. Keyes, E., et al. Potential allergenicity of commonly sold high SPF broad spectrum sunscreens in the United States; from the perspective of patients with autoimmune skin disease. Int J Womens Dermatol. (September 2019).

  7. InformedHealth. Allergic contact dermatitis: Overview. (2020, May 7).

  8. Snyder, M., et al. Photocontact Dermatitis and Its Clinical Mimics: an Overview for the Allergist. Clin Rev Allergy Immunol. (February 2019).

  9. InformedHealth. Allergic contact dermatitis: Overview. Ibid.

  10. InformedHealth. Allergic contact dermatitis: Overview. Ibid.

  11. InformedHealth. Allergic contact dermatitis: Overview. Ibid.

  12. Keyes, E., et al. Potential allergenicity of commonly sold high SPF broad spectrum sunscreens in the United States; from the perspective of patients with autoimmune skin disease. Int J Womens Dermatol. Ibid.

  13. Keyes, E., et al. Potential allergenicity of commonly sold high SPF broad spectrum sunscreens in the United States; from the perspective of patients with autoimmune skin disease. Int J Womens Dermatol. Ibid.

  14. Keyes, E., et al. Potential allergenicity of commonly sold high SPF broad spectrum sunscreens in the United States; from the perspective of patients with autoimmune skin disease. Int J Womens Dermatol. Ibid.

  15. Keyes, E., et al. Potential allergenicity of commonly sold high SPF broad spectrum sunscreens in the United States; from the perspective of patients with autoimmune skin disease. Int J Womens Dermatol. Ibid.

  16. Keyes, E., et al. Potential allergenicity of commonly sold high SPF broad spectrum sunscreens in the United States; from the perspective of patients with autoimmune skin disease. Int J Womens Dermatol. Ibid.

  17. Kerr, A. and Ferguson, J. Photoallergic contact dermatitis. Photodermatology, Photoimmunology & Photomedicine. (2010, March 15).

  18. Geoffrey, K., et al. Sunscreen products: Rationale for use, formulation development and regulatory considerations. Saudi Pharm J. (November 2019).

Meredith Hartle is a board-certified Family Medicine physician at Curology. She earned her medical degree at Kirksville College of Osteopathic Medicine in Kirksville, MO.

*Cancel anytime. Subject to consultation. Results may vary.

*PSA for your future skin: sunscreen alone cannot prevent all UV damage.

• • •
Our medical review process:We’re here to tell you what we know. That’s why our information is evidence-based and fact-checked by medical experts. Still, everyone’s skin is unique—the best way to get advice is to talk to your healthcare provider.
Curology Team Avatar

Curology Team

Meredith Hartle, DO

Meredith Hartle, DO

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