The good news: Sunscreen products are like little protective shields for the skin. Creams, lotions and gel sunscreens all keep harmful ultraviolet (UV) radiation away from the skin. There are basically two types of these shields:
- Organic chemical protective substances whose molecules neutralise the sun’s UV rays. One example is octinoxate.
- Mineral filters that reflect sunlight, like a series of tiny mirrors. One example is titanium dioxide.
Sun protection products often contain both of these shields, i.e. chemical and mineral UV filters. The bad news: Both can trigger allergies. However, fragrances, dyes and preservatives in the creams are more commonly known to cause allergies. Fragrance allergies are very widespread in the population: It is estimated that one to two per cent of people are sensitised to fragrances.
What’s in the sunscreen?
So rule number one: Read through the ingredients before buying. If you already know which ingredients cause an allergic skin reaction, you should not buy a sunscreen containing them.
If you haven’t yet found a suitable sunscreen, you can consult the ECARF product database.
ECARF has also tested and certified sun protection products for people with allergies. As a rule, sunscreens bearing the ECARF seal may only contain ingredients that have no allergic potential in the concentrations used. To determine whether this is the case, sunscreens are tested in a supervised application study on at least 20 people with sensitive skin and medically diagnosed atopic dermatitis. If the condition of the skin does not worsen after seven days of use, the sunscreen is considered to be well tolerated by the skin. They must also meet additional standards defined by ECARF, which can be consulted.
Use less lipid-based moisture than in winter
Sunscreen should not be avoided out of concern over an allergic reaction. “It is important to use a day cream with sun protection to prevent skin cancer, regardless of allergies”, says Prof. Torsten Zuberbier, Chairman of the Board of ECARF.
However, the skin needs less moisturising skin care in summer than in the dry winter air. Even for people with atopic dermatitis, the skin is usually less dry in summer. So if you apply too much lipid-based moisturiser in summer, you could even damage your skin. “Products with a high lipid content, such as greasy ointments or petroleum jelly, cause heat to build up on the skin, which can result in itching and worsen the appearance of the skin in summer”, warns Zuberbier. But in winter, greasy ointments are well tolerated, even on eczema-prone skin.
What are lawmakers doing about it?
Cosmetics, including sunscreens, do not require specific approval in the EU. But each ingredient and product is subject to a safety assessment. Dyes, preservatives and UV filters must be tested by the EU Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety (SCCS), which checks the substances for potential health risks. The product can only be placed on the market in the EU if the committee has not identified any risk.
Zuberbier Torsten. ECARF expert meeting in July 2021.
German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR). Are there health risks associated with sunscreens? Questions and answers of the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment regarding sun protection products, dated 19 December 2019. Last retrieved on 16 June 2021. (In German)