Sun & Skin News

When You’re Extra Sensitive to Sunlight: What You Need to Know About Photosensitivity

By Ali Venosa • January 3, 2019


Hopefully, being sun smart is already a part of your everyday routine. Wearing sunscreen, covering up with clothing and seeking shade will help protect you from the sun and reduce your risk of developing skin cancer. But have you ever felt like you were doing everything right and yet you still ended up with a sunburn? It’s possible that your medicine, skin care product or medical condition might be to blame.

How Do You Know You’re Having a Reaction to Sunlight?

Photosensitivity occurs when the skin reacts in an abnormally sensitive way to light from the sun or an artificial source of ultraviolet (UV) radiation, like a tanning bed. Symptoms typically form on sun-exposed areas of skin, according to Donna Bilu Martin, MD, a dermatologist practicing at Premier Dermatology, MD in Aventura, Florida.

“Photosensitivity generally presents as a rash,” she says. “It may look like a sunburn or eczema. Blistering may be present, and affected areas may be hot or painful.”

Dr. Bilu Martin says there are plenty of things that can cause the condition. “Reactions can occur in response to certain medications, chemicals, plants, autoimmune diseases or metabolic diseases,” she says. Medications that are known to cause photosensitivity in some people include tetracyclines (a class of antibiotics often used to treat infections in the urinary tract, respiratory tract and the intestines) and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (also known as NSAIDS) like aspirin and ibuprofen. Lupus, dermatomyositis and porphyria are among the diseases that can increase your skin’s sensitivity to light.

There are two types of photosensitive reactions, according to Dr. Bilu Martin: phototoxic and photoallergic. A phototoxic response is the more common of the two, and usually crops up within 24 hours of sun exposure. This type of response occurs when a drug is activated by exposure to sunlight and causes damage to the skin. A phototoxic reaction will usually be limited to the skin that has been exposed to UV light.

A photoallergic reaction can develop one to three days after exposure to the sun and the photosensitizing substance. It occurs when the body’s immune system recognizes changes caused by sun exposure as a foreign threat. The body produces antibodies and attacks, causing a reaction. A photoallergic reaction can leave you with a rash, blisters, red bumps or even oozing lesions.

Keep in mind that anytime your skin darkens in color or burns, you’re sustaining DNA damage. This means that if your skin is suffering a photosensitive reaction, you are also at an increased risk of developing skin cancer.

What You Can Do

Though sometimes photosensitivity can’t be avoided (like when it’s caused by an underlying disease), it’s good to be aware of which substances make your skin more sensitive to UV rays. Topical retinol, for example, can cause photosensitivity. Choosing to apply products containing retinol at night can help you avoid a bad reaction.

Talk to your doctor and pharmacist about any medications you’ve been prescribed, and check if they may increase your photosensitivity. If applying a substance or taking a medication that causes photosensitivity is unavoidable, there are precautions you can take to limit the risk of developing a reaction. “Avoiding direct sunlight exposure is key,” says Dr. Bilu Martin. “Staying in the shade and avoiding light will help decrease the chance of a photosensitive reaction.”

Dr. Bilu Martin recommends that people at risk of photosensitivity wear a water-resistant, broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30. Formulas that contain zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are less likely to cause a skin reaction and are good choices for people dealing with photosensitivity. She says wearing sun-protective clothing (including a hat) with a UPF of at least 50 can be helpful as well. Photosensitivity should definitely be taken seriously, but with the right combination of preventive measures, it’s possible to reduce your risk of developing a painful reaction to sunlight.

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