How common are allergies to sunscreen?

“25 percent of all people are going to be allergic to chemical sunscreens.”

This statistic was published in a beauty magazine recently.

Contemporary experiments and surveys have been done on the topic of sunscreens as an allergen. Here are the conclusions of some of them…

“Of 23,908 patients patch tested, 219 (0.9%) had sunscreen coded as an allergen source. “

“Allergy to sunscreen represents a small proportion (< 1%) of allergic contact dermatitis reactions in North America”

“[Allergic contact dermatitis] to sunscreen was found to be very uncommon (0.8%).”

There are more papers on this subject, but all their results have a common trend. None of them estimate rates of allergies to sunscreens or sunscreen chemicals for the general population to be even close to 25%.

Most found an allergy to sunscreen’s prevalence among patients with conditions like photosensitivity to be less than 1%.

That’s patients, people who had some kind of skin reaction and went to a doctor — for the general population the prevalence is probably even lower.

Analysis of the Prevalence of Allergic Contact Dermatitis to Sunscreen: A Cohort Study
By Katie Beleznay, Gillian de Gannes, Sunil Kalia
Published January 1, 2014

In this experiment they reviewed 1,527 patients who were tested against 70 allergens.

23 of those 1,527 patients were further tested against sunscreen chemicals. Of those, only 4 patients reacted. 8 other additional patients of the 1,527 tested patients reacted to oxybenzone.

The quoted 25% likely came from a misframing like this, the prevalence of allergy they found is not 4 out of 23 patients (17%). It’s 12 out of 1,527 patients (0.8%), and likely lower for the general population.

“The prevalence of positive patch test reactions to sunscreen chemicals or a sunscreen product was 12 of 1,527 (0.8%) for all patients referred to our clinic for patch testing.

Other data indicate that among patients referred for patch testing, the prevalence of allergy to active sunscreen ingredients is low, likely less than 1%.”

Patch Test Reactions Associated With Sunscreen Products and the Importance of Testing to an Expanded Series
By Erin Warshaw, et al.
Published July/August, 2013

“Of 23,908 patients patch tested, 219 (0.9%) had sunscreen coded as an allergen source…the most commonly affected areas were the face and exposed sites…The top 3 most frequent allergens in sunscreens were benzophenone-3 (70.2% for 10% concentration, 64.4% for 3% concentration), DL-alpha-tocopherol (4.8%), and fragrance mix I (4.0%).”

Here we find some of the allergens in the sunscreens weren’t the sunscreen chemicals, but fragrances and a form of Vitamin E.

Sunscreen Allergy: A Review of Epidemiology, Clinical Characteristics, and Responsible Allergens
By Erin Warshaw, Elyse Scheuer
Published March, 2006

“The prevalence of allergy in the general population to sunscreen agents is unknown. Among individuals referred for patch testing, the prevalence of allergy to active sunscreen ingredients is low, probably less than 1%.”

“2,715 patients referred for presumed photosensitivity disorders from 1983 to 1998. Sixty-two patients (2.3%) exhibited photoallergic reactions, and of these reactions, 65% were due to UV absorbers.”
The prevalence described here isn’t 2.3% or 65%. It’s 65% of 2.3%, that’s 1.5%.

Contact and Photocontact Sensitivity to Sunscreens: Review of a 15-year Experience and of the Literature
By Silvia Schauder, Hellmut Ippen
Published 1997

Looking at data from between 1981 to 1996, 402 patients with suspected clinical photosensitivity, 80 (20%) demonstrated a reaction to 1 or more UV absorbers.

What to keep in mind is that these are patients with suspected clinical photosensitivity and are not representative of a general population.

Some of the sunscreen chemicals used in this study, like para-aminobenzoic acid (PABA), isopropyl dibenzoylmethane, and Enzacamene, are no longer commonly found in sunscreens due to frequent skin reactions.

Allergies to sunscreen is a real occurrence, but it’s very likely not as prevalent as 25% of all people.

If you experience: burning, stinging, lasting redness, welts, hives, or any other signs of a reaction – you should consider discontinuing use of the sunscreen or skincare formula.

Consider testing new sunscreens or skincare on a small patch of skin before using them more liberally.

Medical care may be out of reach for many in the US, but a dermatologist or allergist can work with you to help pinpoint what ingredients are causing your reactions.