Sun & Skin News

When Beauty Products Cause Sun Sensitivity

By Skin Cancer Foundation • November 16, 2018

If you’re a skin care buff like me, there are buzzwords you consistently hear that make promises of radiant skin. At the top of that word list you’ll find “active ingredients,” which are the elements that make a skin product potent. They can smooth wrinkles, shrink pores and clear acne, but as with any medication, underlying side effects may emerge. One of the most common is heightened photosensitivity, a type of reaction the skin experiences when the treated area is exposed to sunlight.

As if you needed a stronger motivation to use sunscreen every day, some of your favorite serums and creams could be increasing your sun sensitivity without you even knowing. The ingredients most likely to cause a reaction are retinol, AHAs and hydroquinone. If you use these without effective sun protection at the same time, you may run the risk of developing sun damage, which can potentially lead to skin cancer.

With new skin care products being introduced all the time, it’s important to arm yourself with the knowledge of these components to ensure a carefree beauty routine.

What Are Active Ingredients?

In any product, active ingredients are responsible for delivering the proposed benefits. These exist in all types of skin care products, even in natural versions. Depending on your skin concerns, you can choose an active ingredient that targets clogged pores, hyperpigmentation, fine lines and more. The FDA requires brands to itemize all ingredients on product labels, with the primary ingredients listed first to help consumers choose the right product.


Touted by many as the holy grail of flawless skin, retinol, also known as vitamin A, is a topical ingredient that promotes skin renewal and enhances collagen production. Considered by many dermatologists to be the gold standard of antiaging products, it targets fine lines, wrinkles, pore size and uneven tone and texture.

Retinol stimulates cell renewal to produce new skin cells; the new skin that develops is more delicate and thinner and therefore should not be exposed directly to sunlight. Most labels recommend using products that contain this derivative only at night to avoid any risks.


Alpha hydroxy acids (like glycolic acid) are naturally derived acids that chemically exfoliate the skin. Commonly found in skin-brightening and acne-fighting products, AHAs work to rid the surface of buildup to keep skin soft and hydrated. Due to the constant exfoliation these products provide, your face can become more susceptible to ultraviolet (UV) radiation even on days you don’t use them. One study concluded that continual use of AHAs can cause your skin to burn when exposed to UV light up to 24 hours after last application. While exfoliation is a crucial step to looking fresh-faced, use AHAs wisely in conjunction with sunscreen to keep sun damage at bay.


Perhaps the most important ingredient to keep an eye out for is hydroquinone — a lightening agent that fades discoloration of the skin. It takes action by disrupting the formation of excess melanin that leads to dark and brown spots, melasma and hyperpigmentation. This decrease in melanin production makes the skin more susceptible to harmful UV radiation. This can counteract the purpose of hydroquinone, so it is usually recommended in small doses. Consult a dermatologist before beginning a treatment with hydroquinone, and avoid direct sun light as much as possible.

Exercising Caution

These ingredients can do wonders for the skin, so there’s no need to purge your cabinets of products that contain them. By simply being mindful of the amount of sun exposure you’re getting and applying sunscreen regularly, in addition to seeking shade and covering up with hats and sunglasses, you should experience no downsides. In fact, using the two together make an ultimate recipe for flawless skin.

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