Sunlight helps to relieve symptoms in some people with eczema, but for people with sun sensitivity (photosensitivity), direct sun or doctor-recommended phototherapy may actually worsen eczema symptoms. Photosensitivity usually causes sunburnlike symptoms (a rash, for example) when a person is exposed to natural or artificial sunlight. It might be triggered by certain medications, medical conditions, or topical skin care products. If your skin is sensitive to UV radiation, there are several practical ways to protect yourself.
Members of MyEczemaTeam have shared comments and questions about eczema and sun sensitivity:
If you have photosensitivity that affects your eczema, here’s what to know about the condition and ways to manage it.
Avoiding the sun may prevent painful skin irritation, but it can also affect quality of life for adults and children with eczema and photosensitivity. Enjoying events such as outdoor sports, school activities, and family vacations can be a challenge with photosensitivity.
“We have a beach vacation scheduled in two weeks, and I don’t know if we should cancel or not. My dermatologist said to stay out of the sun and pool,” said one member of MyEczemaTeam.
“My 2-year-old boy has really bad eczema, and the sun makes it worse. His hives got so bad that he lost his eyebrows, and sometimes other kids won’t play with him,” shared a concerned mom.
Photosensitivity, or sun sensitivity, includes photoallergy (sun allergy) and phototoxicity. A sun allergy is an immune system reaction to sunlight, and it sometimes doesn’t occur until several days after sun exposure. About 20 percent of people in the United States experience an allergic reaction to light exposure, also known as polymorphous light eruption.
Phototoxicity is more common and occurs more quickly in response to sun exposure — within a few hours. Symptoms of both photoallergy and phototoxicity may appear as itchy bumps, blisters, or hives; painful sunburnlike rashes; or other types of skin eruption. Reactions may appear differently on different skin types.
“I get itchy, red, cracked, and weepy patches on my face and neck,” wrote one member of MyEczemaTeam. “It’s so uncomfortable and makes summers really tough.” Another member said, “I get whitish circles on my legs with a bump in the middle of each. They itch, I scratch, and I end up with a rash.”
Certain oral and topical drugs, chemicals, and medical and skin conditions can make exposed areas of skin more sensitive to ultraviolet radiation. Eczema treatments, such as phototherapy with ultraviolet light A (UVA), ultraviolet light B (UVB), or psoralen (a medication used in combination with UVA light called PUVA or photochemotherapy), can cause photosensitivity reactions.
Medications that can increase photosensitivity include:
Eczema treatments like certain antibiotics and tar shampoos may cause photosensitivity. Some sunscreens even contain chemicals that can cause photosensitive reactions in people with skin disorders like eczema. “I use a really high SPF sunscreen, but I’m finding that my skin still flares up,” reported a member.
To diagnose photosensitivities like sun-induced allergic reactions and phototoxic reactions, doctors may have you undergo photopatch testing, allergen testing, or a UV light test. Other common rashes during the summer months include prickly heat and poison ivy. An eczema flare-up could also be mistaken for a sun reaction depending on the location and timing of your symptoms.
In severe cases, or if you’re diagnosed with a true sun allergy, you may be advised to adjust your medication or take special precautions in the sun to avoid a skin reaction.
Photosensitive reactions and sun allergies are often treatable with prescription and over-the-counter treatments and other skin care remedies. Talk to your dermatologist if you suspect that you have a skin allergy in addition to eczema. You should wait for a confirmed diagnosis before attempting to treat the condition with steroid creams or other treatments on your own.
It’s important to speak with a doctor about any photosensitive reactions you experience, as they could reduce your skin’s natural defenses and potentially increase your risk of skin diseases like skin cancer.
In mild cases, avoiding the sun can help prevent symptoms. Apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30 regularly to areas of exposed skin.
Consider wearing hats and other protective clothing to minimize exposed skin. If you’re heading out for a sunny event, find ways to stay in the shade, or bring your own tent or umbrella for sun protection. Limit your time spent outdoors during peak sunlight hours between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m.
Over-the-counter oral antihistamines may also help relieve symptoms of sun sensitivity with eczema. “My doctor prescribed Claritin for daytime and Benadryl for nighttime, to help with itching. It did,” said a member of MyEczemaTeam. However, some antihistamines also increase sensitivity to sunlight, so consult a dermatology professional before treating sun sensitivity.
For severe allergic reactions to the sun, over-the-counter and prescription corticosteroid creams may be prescribed. “I tried a prescription cream for my daughter. It was an extreme lifesaver,” said one member. “The sun and heat don’t have an effect on her anymore, and her red blotches do not come back.”
You may also be able to desensitize your skin to the sun through gradual exposure to UV light, either through phototherapy at your doctor’s office or outside. Consult a doctor before trying this at home.
Several members of MyEczemaTeam have discovered ways to keep sun sensitivity from becoming a burden for them. Here are a few of their top tips.
Medicated lotions can help relieve irritation caused by dry, scaly skin. “I found a great cream, Eucerin Sun Allergy Protect, that works,” said a member of MyEczemaTeam. Another member uses olive oil to soothe raw skin. “I apply it overnight to get rid of dryness and itching. So far so good,” she said, “but wash it off before you go outside, so your skin doesn’t fry!”
Applying compresses to affected areas or misting skin with cool water can help relieve itching and irritation. “Something from the freezer wrapped in a towel really helps me,” recommended one member. “Just use a moisturizer for sensitive skin afterward.”
One member reported success with tea tree oil added to lotion. “It helped my daughter’s eczema a lot,” she said. Another member uses apple cider vinegar to reduce symptoms: “I dilute it 50-50 with water to stop my itch. It works for me.” Do a small patch test to check for irritation before applying tea tree oil mixed with lotion or diluted apple cider vinegar to the skin.
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Do you have photosensitivity with your eczema? How does it affect your life, and how do you help manage the symptoms? Share your experience in the comments below, or start a conversation by posting on your Activities page.