Do you seem to get angry, painful, red skin even when you’ve hardly been out in the sun? Do you dread sunny days because you seem to come up in a rash and feel itchy? Perhaps you seek shade so much people joke you are ‘allergic to the sun’? It could be that they are right in a way – and you are suffering photosensitivity.
Photosensitivity is an extreme sensitivity to ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun and other light sources and sufferers find themselves developing skin rashes or burns, even after only limited exposure to the sun. “It is normal to develop redness after too much exposure to sun light,” explains Dermatologist Dr Daniel Glass from The Dermatology Clinic, London. “Abnormal photosensitivity is the term used to describe reaction to light that falls outside the normal range. This may be due to the ultraviolet (UV) rays from sunlight and other light sources, such as indoor fluorescent light and includes developing redness at lower doses of light than normal. The reactions itself can take on many different forms, including small red bumps, larger red areas, and blisters.”
The symptoms of photosensitivity vary from mild to severe, sometimes it’s just uncomfortable but other people can suffer blistering even from a small amount of sunlight on their skin. And it’s a condition which can suddenly flare up, explains Dr Glass: “Photosensitivity can occur with no warning. Clearly if you have experienced photosensitivity in the past you should be wary if you know you will be exposing your skin to sunlight.”
There is a genetic trigger for photosensitivity which can mean you’re predisposed to a flare up. “Photosensitivity can affect people with all types of skin, but you are more likely to experience sunburn type reactions it if your skin is very fair,” says Dr Glass. “There are certain skin conditions that can make you more likely to react to light, such as lupus. Common diseases like acne, eczema and psoriasis tend to improve with light, however rarely eczema, acne and psoriasis can be photosensitive and therefore get worse with exposure to light.” Make sure you cover up with light clothing, a very high sunscreen with UVB and the UVA protection, UV protecting sunglasses and a wide brim hat – and avoid the sun at its peak.
Although the condition can come out of nowhere, there are some triggers which can set it off in some cases and finding the trigger is at the root of preventing a flare up. “Certain medications may also make the skin more sensitive to sunlight, such as tetracycline antibiotics, and retinoid but also less commonly, the contraceptive pill, antihistamines and antidepressants,” says Dr Glass. You may not have been warned that the medication you are taking could be a problem as increasing photosensitivity is not something which medicines are routinely checked for as having photosensitivity tends not to cause long-term issues.
The chemicals found in some beauty products can also cause an allergic reaction – and this includes suncream. This is obviously a more inconvenient problem which could cause longer-term issues but for which there is a solution.
If suncream is a trigger it can cause quite a conundrum when it comes to looking after skin in the sun. Dr Glass says immediately protecting your skin so it’s not exposed to any UV rays, like covering up and seeking shade, is important, “The best action for sufferers to take is to limit their sun exposure as sunscreens should not be used as an alternative to clothing and shade, rather they should offer an additional protection.” High UV protection long sleeve tops and even leggings, which can even be worn swimming in the sun, are a good idea. “Sufferers should also seek advice from a dermatologist about possible desensitisation and take vitamin D supplement tablets as simply avoiding sunlight can cause a vitamin D deficiency.” He urges everyone to wear a high protection sun screen so for those who struggle with the combination of topical chemicals and UV light it’s important to reduce sensitivity to sunlight.
“Desensitisation is a way of raising the skin’s resistance by treating it with increasing doses ultraviolet light in a special phototherapy cubicle,” he explains. “This treatment is given in the early spring so that the skin is ready to cope with the summer sun. The effect of desensitisation wears off in the winter, so it should be repeated every spring. If you are suffering only mild symptoms then try a strict sun safety regime, spending time in the shade between 11am and 3pm, when the sun is at its peak heat.” Over time this should allow your skin to get used to UV rays and stop it reacting so violently to it.
If you are suffering an outbreak now there is help which can calm your skin and reduce discomfort. For mild symptoms, either apply cool compresses, like a cool, damp flannel to the areas of itchy rash, or mist your skin with sprays of cool water. You can also try a nonprescription antihistamine to relieve itching, or a corticosteroid cream. Stay out of the sun while your skin settles down.
If the reaction is caused by medication your doctor may be able to recommend an alternative which is less likely to cause sensitivity but overall photosensitivity can be managed and you can have fun in the sun again.