Sunscreen Agent (Topical)

Chemical sunscreen prevents sunburn by absorbing the ultraviolet (UV) and visible sunrays and physical sunscreen scatters, blocks, absorbs, or reflects these rays.


Chemical sunscreen prevents sunburn by absorbing the ultraviolet (UV) and visible sunrays and physical sunscreen scatters, blocks, absorbs, or reflects these rays. Sunscreen usually has more than one ingredient that protects you from the sun. For instance, some ingredients protect against ultraviolet A (UVA) sunrays and other ingredients protect against ultraviolet B (UVB) sunrays. These are used in conjunction sometimes because UVB rays are more likely to cause sunburn than UVA rays. A good sunscreen will protect against both UVA and UVB rays.

Sunscreen generally comes labeled with a sun protection factor (SPF) - usually the minimum amount of UVB sunlight required with a certain product to produce redness or sunscreen-protected skin, compared to skin that's unprotected. Sunscreen is available over the counter.

Condition(s) Treated

  • Prevents sunburn

Type of Medicine

  • Topical agent

Side Effects

Certain medications, when used with other medications, can cause annoying side effects. Not all patients experience these side effects, but if you do experience them, you may need to seek medical attention. If you notice any of the following rare side effects of sunscreen agents, contact your doctor immediately.

  • Pain in hair follicles
  • Acne
  • Late appearance of rash with or without weeping blisters that could become crusted, usually in sun-exposed areas, and might travel to other unexposed areas of the skin
  • Itching, burning or stinging of the skin
  • Pus in the hair follicles
  • Early appearance of swelling or redness of the skin

Some side effects that occur generally do not need medical attention, as they tend to go away during treatment as your body gets used to the medication. Your physician may be able to recommend ways to reduce or prevent these side effects. If you experience any of the following side effects and they become troublesome--or if you have any concerns--discuss them with your doctor. Some more common side effects include:

  • Tightening or drying of the skin

You may not experience all of the side effects listed here, or you may experience side effects not listed here. If you do experience unlisted side effects, you might consider reporting them to the FDA (Food and Drug Administration). Your doctor can help you do this.


Every skin complexion requires a different level of sunscreen, as skin color determines how easily a person will burn in the sun. Generally, fairer skin tends to burn more easily and rarely tans, while dark skin rarely burns and tans copiously. The following dosage information is based on skin complexion.

Very fair skin tends to burn fairly easily and rarely tans. This skin complexion requires a sunscreen agent with an SPF between 20 and 30. Fair skin also tends to burn easily and tans slightly. Fair skin requires a sunscreen with an SPF of 12 to 20. Light skin usually burns moderately easily and tans gradually to light brown. Light skin requires a sunscreen agent with an SPF between 8 and 12. Medium skin hardly ever burns and usually tans very well to moderate brown. Medium skin requires a sunscreen agent with an SPF between 4 and 8. Dark skin rarely burns and tans profusely. Dark skin requires a sunscreen agent with an SPF between 2 and 4.

Prior to going out in the sunlight, apply an appropriate amount of sunscreen to protect your skin against UVA and UVB rays. Using a generous amount of sunscreen should be applied is recommended. Use enough to cover every inch of exposed skin, including the lips. Many lip balms now contain sunscreen. Look for products that contain padimate O, aminobenzoic acid, roxadimate, or lisadimate and apply them one to two hours before you expect to go out. Other sunscreen agents should be applied 30 minutes prior to sun exposure unless the package instructions tell you differently. Lip sunscreen agents should be applied about 45 to 60 minutes before you leave.

Many sunscreen agents come off fairly easily; therefore, you must continuously add lip protectant every one to two hours for the appropriate level of protection. Reapply sunscreen after swimming or after sweating heavily. Reapply lip balm sunscreen agents at least once every hour while out in the sun, as well as after eating and drinking, before and after swimming and during activities that remove it from your lips. Be sure not to spray sunscreen in your eyes; use the spray product safely by spraying it away from the eyes.

Some sunscreen agents are flammable because they contain alcohol. Avoid using sunscreen near open flames, heat or while smoking. Follow your doctor's instructions, as well as the directions on the label. The information provided here only includes the average dosage. Do not use more or less than recommended on the package or by your doctor.

To treat or prevent sunburn, adults, teens, and children 6 months and older should apply this medication generously and evenly to any exposed area(s) of the skin (including the lips) prior to leaving the house. Reapplication may be necessary throughout the day, as you sweat, swim or perform other activities which may cause your sunscreen to wear off.

Major Drug Interactions

Oftentimes, drugs can interact with other drugs in the human body, which can change how the medication affects you. Sunscreen agents are not known to have any major drug interactions. However, you should still inform your doctor of any other medications you're currently taking. Keeping a list of any medications you're currently taking with you when you go to the doctor or the pharmacy is recommended. Consider keeping a copy of this list with you at all times in case of an emergency.


Tell your doctor if you're allergic to any ingredients in sunscreen or if you've ever had an allergic reaction to any similar medications. Be sure to tell your doctor about any allergies you have to food, animals, dyes or preservatives. Discuss what nonprescription products you might be taking and read the label carefully, making sure to follow instructions carefully.

Babies under 6 months of age should be kept out of the sun for long periods of time. Do not use sunscreen on babies under 6 months of age due to an increased risk of side effects. Children 6 months and older should have limited sun exposure or should be kept out of the sun completely. You should apply a sunscreen agent with an SPF of at least 15 while you're out in the sun. Children should stick to lotion sunscreen products, as opposed to sprays or other forms of sunscreen. Avoid alcohol-based sunscreen products because your skin may become irritated.

Elderly patients who spend less time in the sun and frequently use sunscreen agents could have a vitamin D deficiency, or be at risk for one. This kind of deficiency can cause bone disease and fracture--though this hasn't been proven. Elderly patients should eat foods high in vitamin D or vitamin D-fortified foods, such as fatty fish or milk. Your doctor may also suggest you start taking vitamin D supplements. Consult your doctor before taking any medications.

Pre-existing skin conditions may affect the use of sunscreen agents. Be sure to tell your doctor if you have any other medical problems, such as skin conditions or diseases--especially ones caused or worsened by exposure to light. Using a sunscreen agent could cause your skin condition to worsen.

Sunscreen agents should be used externally only. Do not consume this topical medication. It is only meant to be rubbed on the skin. Read any directions that come with your medication carefully.

Consider the following information before choosing the right sunscreen for you and your family: type of skin condition, age, type of activity, and site of application.

If you're going to be in higher elevations (such as in the mountains) or on reflective surfaces (such as water, sand, concrete, or snow), consider a sunscreen agent with an ultraviolet A/ultraviolet B (UVA/UVB) coverage. Being at higher altitudes or on reflective surfaces can cause more sun damage to the skin. Activities that produce perspiration, such as exercise, outdoor sports (like tennis), outdoor jobs (construction work, gardening, etc.), sunbathing for long periods of time, or watersports like water-skiing, swimming, or wind surfing can all cause sunscreen to rub, smear or wear off.

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimated that the sun causes about 90 percent of all nonmelanoma skin cancers and 65 percent of all melanomas. Consider wearing a sweat-resistant or waterproof sunscreen agent with an SPF of 15 of higher. Also, covering up by wearing long pants, a hat, and a long-sleeved shirt is recommended. UV-opaque sunglasses can help protect your eyes against cataracts from the sunrays.

If you have extremely dry skin, try using a lotion or cream form of sunscreen. However, if your skin is more on the oily side, use a gel or alcohol-based sunscreen agent. Do not use alcohol-based sunscreen agents on inflamed or eczematous skin. Stop using sunscreen if your skin becomes irritated or you develop a rash. Limiting your exposure to the sun while using sunscreen can help you avoid early wrinkles and skin cancer.

Sunscreen agents with ingredients such as lisadimate, roxadimate, aminobenzoic acid, or padimate O can cause discoloration and stain light-colored fabrics yellow.

Minimizing your exposure to the sun (in addition to using sunscreen agents) between 10am and 2pm (11am to 3pm daylight savings time), as the sun is at its strongest during these times. Take more caution on cloudy or overcast days, as well as around reflective surfaces like water, sand, concrete or snow, as these surfaces can reflect damaging sunrays. Avoid tanning beds and sunlamps as well as they can damage the eyes and skin just like direct sunlight can.

When sunscreen is used improperly, it can result in sun-induced inflammation and/or blistering of the skin. When this happens, immune cells called mast cells travel to the injured site due to the damage and they dilate the blood vessels, producing edema (swelling), erythema (reddening), and stinging and burning sensations (as part of the healing process). The damage to DNA could potentially be the start on the path towards cancer. Intense, intermittent UVR exposure often causes sunburn and is closely connected to melanoma. People who have had blistering sunburn during their childhood are more likely to develop melanoma in adulthood. People with more than five sunburns have double the risk of developing melanoma in adulthood.

Sunscreen agents also protect against weakened immune surveillance mechanisms, which give tumor cells more room to replicate. This only adds to your potentially already suppressed immune system due to causes such as antirejection drugs for transplants or cancer chemotherapy.

Sunscreen should be used by everyone--not just people with lighter skin. While people with fairer skin have a higher risk of sunburns, people with darker skin should be concerned with dyspigmentation, the abnormal decrease or increase in the distribution or production of pigment in the skin. People with darker skin can decrease this risk by using sunscreen regularly. Sunscreen agents are recommended for anyone over the age of 6 months for daily use, year-round and in any weather. According to the World Health Organization, UVR levels typically rise by roughly 4 to 5 percent for every 1,000 feet of altitude, and that reflection from water, sand, concrete or snow magnifies the sunray's effects by up to 80 percent, which is why it's important to wear sunscreen all of the time.


Sunscreen agents should be store in a closed, tight container away from direct light, heat and moisture. Store it at room temperature and out of sight and reach of children or pets.

Avoid keeping unused or expired medication. Ask your doctor or pharmacist about ways to properly dispose of your unused medication. He or she may be able to refer you to a community medicine take-back program.


While sunscreen is a greatly beneficial topical agent, it can cause problems for people with certain skin conditions who fail to report their conditions to their doctor. Every complexion requires a different level of protection, as fairer skin tends to burn far more easily than dark skin. Commonly used brand names include Deeptan Suntan Oil Supreme, Neutrogena Glow Sunless Tanning, Hydroquinone Skin Bleaching with Sunscreens, and A-Fil. When combined with certain other medications, sunscreen agents can cause drug interactions that may increase side effects or make your condition even worse. This is why it's important for patients to communicate with their doctors.

Sunscreen agent, when applied correctly, can provide great protection from UVA/UVB rays when you're out and about. Covering any areas that will be exposed is recommended, including the lips. Many lip balms now contain an SPF of at least 15. Using sunscreen even when it's cloudy is recommended. Wearing long sleeves, long pants, and hats can also help you avoid the sun if you have sensitive skin. Sunscreen agents are available over the counter in oils, creams, sprays, lotions, liquid, sticks, ointments, gel/jellies, and pads.

Last Reviewed:
December 23, 2017
Last Updated:
April 05, 2018