Certain Sunblock Ingredients Can Cause Allergic Reactions In Kids

by Wendy Wisner
Originally Published: 
Scary Mommy and boophotography/Getty

For most of my kids’ lives, we’ve stuck to the more natural brands of sunblock – ones with a titanium oxide or zinc oxide base, rather the more traditional brands with made of chemicals I can’t pronounce. Titanium oxide/zinc oxide sunblocks are thicker and harder to rub in than other sunblocks, but are known to protect against UV rays, and work well enough for my kids.

Recently, we were at my in-laws’ house, and we forgot our sunblock at home. My 6-year-old wanted to play in the sprinklers, and I thought nothing of using the sunblock my in-laws had on hand. It was one of those chemical-laden brands, but I’m not strict about using natural products all the damn time. That’s no way to live – and really, what the worst that could happen from just a few times of use?

Well, it wasn’t catastrophic in the grand scheme of things, but my son ended up breaking into a pretty nasty rash after using that sunblock, and the experience took me by surprise, mostly because of how the whole thing unfolded.

Basically, we slathered the sunblock all over him, mostly on his chest, shoulders, and back (these details will become important later). He happily played in the sprinklers, ate dinner, ate a bowl of ice cream the size of his head, and went home. The next day was totally fine, but that night, as I was getting him ready for bed, I noticed that his whole chest and back was covered in tiny red bumps.

Of course, being the hypochondriac I am, my first thought was “my kid’s got [insert every scary disease that is accompanied by a rash]!” After realizing that he had zero other symptoms besides the rash, I took a more careful look, and I realized that the rash was just in a places where I had applied sunblock. In fact, I noticed that there were no tiny red bumps on his lower back or belly, both of which I tend to forget to apply sunblock to.


A quick internet search revealed that allergic reactions to certain ingredients to sunblock are rare, but actually more common than you might realize. According to The American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology, my son was likely experiencing a “photo-allergic reaction” to sunscreen, where the sunscreen, when mixed with the UV rays of the sun, causes an allergic reaction rash (dermatitis). Oxybenzone is the ingredient most closely associated with these reactions (this was in the sunblock my son used), but benzophenones, cinnamates, and dibenzoylmethanes are sometimes to blame too.

An article on WebMD further elaborated on my suspicions. Reactions knowns as “allergic contact dermatitis” sometimes occur with sunblock usage. They are rare, “affecting less than 1% of the population,” explains WebMD, and “may involve a rash, itchy skin, swelling, or blistering, and it takes a day or more to develop.”

Check, check, and check.

Adam Friedman, associate professor of dermatology at George Washington School of Medicine, confirms to WebMD that allergic reactions sometimes happen right away, but other times take a few days to develop. Itchy red bumps are possible reactions, but sometimes it just looks like you’ve gotten a severe sunburn … from the sunblock. Fun times!

WebMD shared a few pictures from moms who’d shared their sunblock rash stories on social media – and yep, these are some nasty damn rashes.

I contacted my pediatrician, who confirmed that yes, this sometimes happens, although of course she couldn’t give a definitive answer unless we underwent allergy testing. And yes, switching to a titanium oxide/zinc oxide brand of sunblock is our best bet at this point.

For us, the reaction lasted about four days, and unfortunately did get a little worse the more it dragged on. My son complained of being itchy and uncomfortable, and was scratching the heck out of his chest and back for a day or two.

All of this made me recall a mystery rash he’d gotten a few summers back, where his face got those red bumps all over them, and his eyes swelled up so much that he could barely see. I had never been able to figure out what had happened – and the doctor hadn’t either. But looking back, he’d broken out in the rash after we’d been staying at a lake house with extended family, and who knows who might have slathered him with sunblock while we weren’t looking. Of course, I have no way of confirming that that’s what happened, but I have my suspicions!

As far as I know, reactions to sunblock aren’t life threatening, though it’s obviously something you should discuss with your doctor. This is just my PSA to tell you that if your kid breaks out in a red, bumpy, itchy rash after using sunblock, a sunblock allergy is something to explore. I’d literally never heard of it until it happened to us.

Oh, and for real: Don’t stop using sunblock, even if your kid has a reaction to it. Use an alternative sunblock instead. Weird, itchy rashes are annoying and should be avoided. But skin cancer is a million times worse.

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