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Beware of Sunburn Boosters

Some medicines and skin care products can increase your sensitivity to the sun. Here’s how to avoid getting burned.
By
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

You take care of your skin, making sure to use sunscreen, a cleansing routine, and moisturizer.

Yet there’s one simple step you may have overlooked that is just as important: Checking out the medicine cabinet and pantry for products that may raise your risk of sun sensitivity.

Summer Sun Care

Protecting your skin from the sun's damaging rays is one of the most important health and beauty steps you can take. To get you started, check out these WebMD stories and slideshows about summer skin care.

Prescription drugs, over-the-counter pain relievers, herbal remedies such as St. John’s wort,  perfumes, exfoliating skin care products, and even some sunscreens can increase sensitivity to the sun. And some foods may boost it, too. Contact with a lime peel can produce an intense burn, so watch out for those poolside margaritas and vodka tonics.

Pain aside, a bad sunburn or excessive sun exposure increases the risk of skin cancer. So does sun sensitivity, a condition most often associated with having a fair complexion.

Excessive sun can also age skin prematurely, causing wrinkles and brown spots.

Sun Sensitivity: What It Is

Sensitivity to the sun, also called photosensitivity, is a reaction set off by the sun’s ultraviolet rays. One type is a phototoxic reaction, which occurs when UV radiation reacts with a drug to form compounds that damage the skin. Sunburn-like symptoms show up within a few minutes or as long as several hours after exposure, on sun-exposed skin only.

Less common are photoallergic reactions, which usually happen when UV light changes a substance applied to the skin, causing an immune response. Bumps, hives, blisters, or red blotches may appear as soon as 20 seconds after getting out in the sun, but more often show up from one to three days later. Skin irritation most often occurs on exposed areas but can spread to other areas.

The reaction depends on the individual, the substance, the amount taken, and the amount of UV exposure. People with light skin, already considered the most sun-sensitive, are more susceptible to phototoxic reactions. The melanin in darker skins is believed to offer some protection. Those with compromised immune systems, such as people with HIV/AIDS, may also be more prone to sun sensitivity.

The effects can wear off quickly if they’re caused by physically or chemically removing the outer layer of skin (through products like oatmeal scrubs or chemical peels), says Barbara R. Reed, MD, a clinical professor of dermatology at the University of Colorado Hospital in Denver. But the effects may worsen over time if they’re caused by an allergy.

“Gently exfoliating your skin is unlikely to make you so sensitive that you can’t tolerate outdoor sports, but Accutane and other drugs certainly can,” says Rachel Herschenfeld, MD, a Wellesley, Mass., dermatologist.

Drugs that cause phototoxic reactions can increase sun sensitivity at higher doses, Herschenfeld says. The drug doxycycline, for example, can be given in low doses of about 40 milligrams daily to treat acne, or in higher doses of 100-200 milligrams daily. Those who take the lower dose at night will see blood levels of the drug peak at night, when they are not at risk of sun exposure, she says. That reduces their risk of photosensitivity.

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