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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.

From the WebMD Archives


“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.

How do you know if you’re more sensitive to the sun? Signs include burning more easily than in the past or noticing rashes, bumps, itching or changes in pigmentation after exposure to sunlight.

“If you’re just getting out for a brief time and notice some burning or stinging on your skin, you should be suspicious,” says Roger Ceilley, MD, a clinical professor of dermatology at the University of Iowa.

If you notice symptoms that concern you, check medicine labels and check in with your physician. Doctors may diagnose sun sensitivity based on the skin’s appearance and exposure to substances that trigger photosensitivity. Occasionally they may perform a patch test to confirm a photoallergic reaction.

Sun Sensitivity: Common Culprits

To find out if you’re taking a drug that increases sun sensitivity, read the information sheet that comes with medications, advises Dennis Bryan of Chicago, a media adviser for the American Pharmacists Association. Ask your doctor or pharmacist whether any medication you’re taking might cause sun sensitivity.

Here is a list of common drugs, foods, perfumes, and skin care products linked to varying degrees of sun sensitivity.

Acne treatments: Creams and astringents with benzoyl peroxide. Prescription drugs including Accutane, doxycycline (an antibiotic), and Soriatane.

Antihistamines:Benadryl and other products with diphenhydramine.

Antibiotics: Tetracyclines, including Sumycin, Tetracyn, and Vibramycin (doxycycline). Sulfa drugs including Bactrim and Septra. Quinolones, including Cipro and Levaquin.