When the temperatures rise and the weather turns towards summer, you can hear the collective rejoicing. Gone are the long dark days of winter, replaced by the long, warm, sunny days of summer!
Sun-filled beach photos and sunny adventures clog the social media feeds of my family, friends, and fellow travel bloggers. 🙂
Unfortunately, I’m not exactly running to bask in the sun’s rays.
Don’t get me wrong. The beach eye candy is gorgeous.
The problem is, I have a sun allergy, or photosensitivity if you want to be technical about it.
Talk about a major bummer, right!?!
I’ve always had fair, sensitive skin with the potential to lobster on the beach. I also travel with my own toiletries because I’d rather not take chances with perfumey hotel shampoos, soaps, and lotions.
But, everything took a turn for the worse a couple of years ago when I had a horrendous allergic reaction to hair dye. To be clear, I’d highlighted my hair a bunch of times without issue, so wasn’t worried when I chose to cover up some early-onset gray hair.
What followed were blistered, burned, and weeping ears and scalp, a swollen, painful neck, and a body covered in itchy rash and hives. I was treated by an allergist and thought the worst was behind me as long as I stayed away from hair dyes with the toxic chemical PPD. That is until the rash returned once I’d finished the prescription from my allergist.
Several skin biopsies later, a couple of dermatologists diagnosed me with a rare auto-immune disease which includes the condition of photosensitivity. I never had any sign of a sun allergy or reoccurring rash before getting my hair dyed. Apparently, my reaction was so severe it had “woken up” something lying dormant in my system.
While it’s not PMLE, the condition is in the same photosensitivity ballpark. Basically, I need to stay out of the sun or suffer the consequences of a widespread, super uncomfortable rash that’ll take weeks to fade away.
How I Travel the World with a Sun Allergy
(and How You Can, Too!)
Regardless of my sun allergy, I’m determined to travel. Yes, Mr. TGT and I used to travel to the Caribbean more, but I’ve certainly not given up on traveling to hot and sunny destinations.
In fact, I was motivated to write this post because of my most recent travels to Mexico and Costa Rica. The combination of products below allowed me to enjoy myself mentally in a way that I haven’t experienced in the sun for quite a while.
I’ve tested a variety of products and found the ones that work best for me. The list is short, but one I’ll continue to grow. My hope is that you, too, can benefit and feel comfortable traveling the world while managing your sun allergy.
If you have a sun allergy, you know you can’t just use any sunscreen. Since most sun allergy conditions are reacting to the sun’s UVA & UVB rays, you’ll need a sunscreen that’ll protect against both.
Lightweight and slightly tinted, City Block is perfect for everyday wear. I wear it as a primer underneath my makeup every day in every season whether I’m exploring the Romanian countryside, dogsledding in Finnish Lapland, or walking around my NYC neighborhood. It’s a great first step to protecting your face from the sun at the start of each new day.
This is one of my tried and true sunscreens. It has the best combination of UVA/UVB protection in a non-greasy lotion and absorbs really quickly into my skin. I don’t have that gross-I’m-wearing-a-bucket-of-sunscreen feeling! But instead, love how soft and light it feels on my skin! I never leave home without a bottle of this lotion in my bag.
The other powerhouse sunscreen I trust will protect my sun-exposed skin. The lotion is a bit thicker than some others I’ve tried, but the others aren’t packed in my suitcase or my beach bag. Piz Buin gets a spot in my bag because the protection is amazing! In fact, I’ve put a dollop of Piz Buin on a section of not-properly-protected skin and that all too familiar sizzle sensation stops in its tracks.
This sunscreen came highly recommended by several readers who also have sun-intolerant skin. It’s waterproof and feels so light it won’t leave you feeling sticky or greasy.
Lastly, for anyone looking for all-natural ingredients or needs a reef-friendly sunscreen option, Alba Botanicals SPF 45 is a great option. It’s biodegradable with minerals that moisturize your skin while protecting you from the sun.
This was a fairly recent step for me. It’s one thing to be under a tent-like umbrella on the beach with sunscreen looking semi beach-sloppy in an oversized shirt.
But, sun-protective clothing conjures up images of turtlenecks on the beach and prudish Victorian-era clothing.
In all seriousness, though, I couldn’t have been more wrong. I did some research and found brands doing a fashionably awesome job for anyone needing sun-protective clothing.
To be clear, I’m referring to UPF clothing with UVA and UVB protection built directly into the fabric.
There are several clothing brands that make UVF clothes. However, I love the look, cut, and feel of Coolibar and Mott 50. These 2 brands sell all types of UVF clothing, including swimwear, sundresses, tops, and bottoms. Their clothes have a lifetime guarantee to protect against the sun. Even better is how stylish the clothes look!
Sure, most people are wearing a typical bathing suit on the beach, but now I just look like a sporty diver with my UVF swim tunic instead of someone in a mish-mosh outfit to cover up.
Even better, I can actually move out of the shade to enjoy a walk or swim. In a sunny destination, UVF clothing has given me back my freedom and peace of mind.
Of course, the beach isn’t the only place where I need sun protection. I actually am more of a mountain girl than a beach girl! 😉 So, for hiking or active outdoor wear, I love Columbia Sportswear’s Omni-Shade clothing.
ProTip: Check Sierra Trading Post for closeout deals! The inventory is based on what’s available at the time, so it’s worth checking often to save money on UPF clothing.
The nearly 5″ brim shades my face, neck and upper chest, and shoulder area. I never thought I’d proclaim my love for a chin strap, but here I am! I can be active without having to constantly keep the hat from blowing off my head. It lies flat in my bag and can even be folded in half.
The hat is incredibly durable, machine washable, and recommended by several melanoma foundations. I have it in white and light gray.
If you’ve ever been in a car unable to escape the sun’s rays, you need these UV protection arm sleeves. Drive without worrying about having a reaction or breaking out in a rash. They’re also great for outdoor activities like running, hiking, cycling, and even gardening!
Recommended swimwear by a reader about the same time I discovered them on Instagram, this company makes sun protection swimwear. Whether you need a full-body suit or just long sleeves or leggings, there are plenty of designs to help you stay protected while enjoying the ocean.
I’ve been happy with my UV swim leggings, but I definitely would like to give SlipIns a try.
Medicine, Vitamins & Prescription Creams
I’ve been so grateful for the readers who have shared their sun allergy stories and recommended what’s worked for them. In addition to any prescription creams, readers have had success with:
- Calcium (taken before and during a trip)
- Zinc Oxide (as a sunscreen and to soothe irritated skin)
This is not meant to be taken as medical advice. I am not a doctor, nor am I saying these things will work for you. I’ve always found my doctor to be the best source for helping me with my condition. You should consult with your doctor to see what’s right for you.
I always pack my prescription steroid creams in my carry-on because I can’t take the chance they’d get lost in checked luggage.
A word of caution, though!
Be sure to bring the prescription-labeled box the cream came in or at the very least, just the prescription label.
Tubes of cream don’t have the benefit of the usual prescription bottle. Don’t assume a security airport agent will recognize your cream(s) as a prescription, particularly if you’re traveling internationally.
If your cream is over the allotted size for security, you may also want to transfer it to a travel-sized bottle to avoid begging (and showing past rash photos at airport security!) to keep your creams from being tossed.
The bottom line is if I can travel with my sun allergy, then so can you! With the right precautions and the help of some tried and true products, it’s more than possible to travel the world (even the sunniest spots!) with a sun allergy.
Do you have a sun allergy? What tips or products do you use to travel the world with a sun allergy?
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