After the long, dark days of winter, nothing feels better than ditching the turtlenecks and tights to soak up those first rays of spring. But the return of sunny weather can sometimes cause skin to react in unexpected ways. An unexplained rash, burning, itching or redness after sun exposure can all be signs that your skin is extra sensitive to UV light.
Before you hit the beach or patio, find out about two of the most common sun allergies and how to protect yourself, so you can enjoy summer without feeling like you took a detour through a field of poison ivy!
Polymorphous Light Eruption: your surprise guest in spring
Happy days are here again! The birds are singing, the sun is shining and spring is just around the corner. You eagerly shed a few extra layers to get a much-needed dose of Vitamin D, and two days later, a mysterious itchy rash appears on your chest, shoulders, arms, legs or the tops of your feet.
If this sounds familiar, you may be among the 20 percent of the adult population who suffers from summer light eruption. Most common in women ages 15-35, this allergic reaction is triggered by a sudden increase in exposure to ultraviolet light—UVA rays in particular — after a long period of non-exposure. This makes sun-starved skin that’s been under wraps all winter especially vulnerable. The face, which gets sun year-round, is usually not affected.
Once the condition has been triggered, it tends to recur every year, so anybody who has suffered an outbreak should take extra care to protect themselves every spring, and practice good sun habits throughout the summer to avoid additional flare-ups.
For tips on preventing future outbreaks, check out our advice on how to protect yourself, below.
Feeling a little (photo) sensitive? Perfume or medication could be why.
You spent a little time outdoors and 48 hours later, you develop a nasty, red sunburn where your skin was exposed to the sun. It doesn’t make sense—not only was it two days ago, you weren’t even outside for that long!
That delayed “sunburn” may not actually be a sunburn at all. It could be photosensitivity, a condition that occurs when skin becomes hypersensitive to UV light. Photosensitivity can be caused by a number of medications, both oral and topical, as well as some cosmetic products that are applied directly to the skin, like perfume or skincare with very high alcohol concentration.
A photosensitive reaction can be tricky to identify because it often doesn’t show up until one to two days after sun exposure. It most commonly manifests as a severe rash or sunburn, but in some cases, can resemble eczema and extend beyond the areas exposed to UV light.
If you suspect your skin is photosensitive, consult your dermatologist. He or she should be able to determine the cause and help relieve your symptoms. If medication is to blame, you may want to consider changing prescriptions or exploring alternative treatment options (when possible). As a general rule, people with photosensitivity should avoid applying perfume directly to skin when spending time outdoors.
If you suffer from this skin condition, it’s important to minimize sun exposure and maximize sun protection. Read our advice section below to find out how.
HOW DO I PROTECT MYSELF?
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
It may seem obvious, but your best defense against the UV rays that trigger sun allergies is avoiding them altogether! Stick to the shade and cover up with hats, long sleeves and sun-protective clothing when you can. Stay out of the sun between noon and 4:00 pm, when its rays are the strongest.
If you need to be outside, wear a high-SPF, broad-spectrum sunscreen that filters out UVB and—especially important—long-wave UVA rays. Don’t forget to reapply, reapply, reapply—at least once every two hours, and more frequently if you’ve been swimming or sweating.
If you are susceptible to summer light eruption, when spring arrives, gradually increase your exposure to sunlight, by no more than 20-30 minutes a day. This gives your skin time to produce melanin, which acts as a natural defense mechanism against the harmful effects of the sun.
What’s on the inside also counts
In addition to good sun habits and avoiding photosensitizing products, some specific therapies may be needed.
Phototherapy, which exposes patients to ultraviolet radiation before initial sun exposure, is less than ideal for treating sun allergies because it actually compounds UV exposure in patients. Consult your dermatologist.
While having a sun allergy means you have to be more careful than most, with the proper precautions and good sun habits, you can avoid or minimize outbreaks, and get through the summer feeling sun-sational!
SUN SENTIVITY RECAP
- Prevention is your best line of defense: minimize sun exposure whenever possible
- Stick to the shade and cover up with hats, long sleeves and protective clothing
- Avoid direct sunlight between noon and 4:00 pm
- Wear a high-SPF, broad-spectrum sunscreen that specifically filters out long-wave UVA rays
- Reapply sunscreen at least every two hours, especially after swimming or sweating
- Increase your exposure to sunlight by no more than 20-30 minutes a day
- Don’t apply perfume directly to skin when spending time outdoors
- Avoid medications and cosmetics that cause photosensitivity (when possible)
- If your current medication is making your skin photosensitive, talk to your doctor about changing prescriptions or pursuing alternative treatment options
“After years of hiding from the sun, I can finally enjoy summer again!”
Ever since I was little, I’d spent summers at my parents’ holiday home on the seaside. The year I turned 18, I developed small, itchy bumps on my neckline, forearms and shoulders. I assumed it was just a one-time reaction, so I waited for it to go away and then went right back out into the sun for the rest of the summer!
Over time, though, the symptoms got worse. I’m the kind of person who loves to take advantage of even the faintest ray of sunlight the minute the weather gets warm, but now every time I went outside, my skin would break out in a rash, with more spots and more itching. It got so bad that finally resigned myself to staying out of the sun for good.
Then I joined an online discussion group, where I met a user who had the same problem. She told me the condition was called summer light eruption and recommended I see a dermatologist. So I made an appointment and the doctor prescribed me a powerful SPF 50 sunscreen from the pharmacy.
It’s been two years now and so far, so good (though I do try to avoid baking on the beach)! After years of hiding from the sun, I can finally enjoy summer again!