Common Medications May Increase Sun Sensitivity

How to Identify and Prevent Photosensitivity

New York, NY (August 25, 2009) - From common antibiotics to heart medications, certain drugs can increase sun sensitivity, causing the skin to burn in less time and with a lower level of sun exposure than normal. Studies have shown that these medications may act photosensitizing agents and may increase the incidence of skin cancer.

"It's absolutely fine to take these medications, it is just that people taking these drugs may need to be extra diligent about sun protection," said Deborah S. Sarnoff, MD, Vice President, The Skin Cancer Foundation.

Photosensitivity is an increased sensitivity or abnormal response of the skin to sunlight or artificial UV light. Both UVB radiation (shorter wavelengths) and UVA (longer wavelengths) can trigger unusual reactions of the skin in people who are taking certain medications. Drug-induced photosensitivity may manifest in a variety of ways. However, most reactions are generally classified as phototoxic, or less commonly, photoallergic.

Phototoxic reactions typically appear as exaggerated sunburn, which can occur within minutes or up to 24 hours after exposure to the photosensitizing medication and UV light. The reaction is limited to sun-exposed skin and may or not be itchy and sore. In severe reactions, blisters may occur.

Photoallergic reactions, which can appear all over the body, typically do not occur until one to three days after the substance has come into contact with the body, when the immune system mounts a response to the allergen. Photoallergies, like other allergies, tend to occur in previously sensitized individuals and are generally caused by topical medications or cosmetic ingredients such as musk ambrette, sandalwood oil and bergamot oil. Repeat exposure to the same allergen plus UV light can prompt itching, red bumps, scaling and oozing lesions similar to eczema.

While there are many medications including over-the-counter pain relievers (such as ibuprofen), oral contraceptives and antidepressants that may cause some type of phototoxic or photoallergic reaction, the most common ones include: Antibiotics (Tetracylines, Flouroquinolones, Sulfonamides), Diuretics (Furosemide, Hydrochlorothiazide), and oral and topical retinoids (Isotretinoin, Acitretin, Tazarotene, Tretinoin).

Preventing Photosensitivity

"Photosensitivity will vary based on the individual," said Dr. Sarnoff. "Two people can take the same medication and one will have a reaction and the other won't. The key to preventing a phototoxic reaction is patient education and taking the proper precautions [as outlined below.]"

  • Seek the shade: If outside for any length of time, find a pavilion roof or large, leafy tree to stay under. Or, carry shade with you - bring a sun umbrella.
  • Wear protective clothing: All clothing provides some degree of sun protection; however, densely woven and bright- or dark- colored fabrics provide greater sun defense. Long sleeves and long pants cover more of the body, while a broad-brimmed hat helps protect face, ears, and back of the neck. For all-day activities in the sun, people with photosensitivity may want to opt for specially formulated sun-protective clothing with a UPF of 50.
  • Use a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30. For people with photosensitivity, the higher the SPF, the better. In addition, be sure the sunscreen contains ingredients such avobenzone, oxybenzone, mexoryl, zinc oxide, or titanium dioxide that protect against UVA rays.
  • Use the right amount of sunscreen. Most people use only about half of what they really need. People with heightened sun sensitivity need to be sure they use at least one ounce (two tablespoons) on their body and an amount the size of a nickel on their face.
  • Apply sunscreen one-half hour before sun exposure: This gives it time to fully absorb and bind to your skin.
  • Reapply sunscreen every two hours, since sunscreen gradually breaks down in the sun and wears off. Also reapply immediately after swimming or sweating heavily.

Armed with the right information, photosensitivity can easily be managed. For additional sun safety and skin cancer information, visit

Now celebrating its 30th year, The Skin Cancer Foundation is committed to educating the public and medical professionals about sun safety. As leaders in the fight against skin cancer, the Foundation is the only global organization solely devoted to the prevention, detection and treatment of the world's most common cancer. The mission of the Foundation is to decrease the incidence of skin cancer through public and professional education and research. To learn more about the Foundation and its programs, visit