Is Your Acne Medication Causing Sun Sensitivity?

Catherine Falls Commercial/Getty

Image Source: Catherine Falls Commercial/Getty

With the weather heating up, people are looking to spend more time outdoors and in the sun. If you’ve noticed your skin has been more sensitive to the sun lately – despite wearing SPF – and you haven’t been able to figure out the culprit, you might be surprised to learn it could be caused by your acne medication. If you have moderate to severe acne and you haven’t seen success with over-the-counter medications, your doctor might recommend prescription acne treatments such as tretinoin or oral antibiotics.

“Many of these medications prescribed to treat acne make your skin more sensitive to ultraviolet (UV) light from the sun and artificial sources like tanning beds,” Neel Patel, GP, tells POPSUGAR. “Known technically as photosensitivity, this means sun exposure can cause painful damage to your skin and increase your risk of developing skin cancer. Even if you don’t typically burn, your chances of burning become much higher, and the effects can be far more severe than traditional sunburn, leading to blistering and peeling, itchy rashes, scaly bumps, and changes in pigmentation.”

Ahead, Dr. Patel breaks down which acne medications cause photosensitivity and how to protect your skin if you plan on continuing your current treatment.

Acne Medications That Can Cause Photosensitivity

Benzoyl Peroxide: Benzoyl peroxide is often recommended to treat mild to moderate acne; it comes in the form of a gel or a face wash and works to reduce bacteria on the skin. Dr. Patel suggests avoiding strong sunlight when using products that contain benzoyl peroxide, as well as using an oil-free sunscreen with SPF 30 or above. Also, Dr. Patel notes that many over-the-counter products contain benzoyl peroxide, so you should be vigilant about checking the ingredients.

Topical Retinoids: Topical retinoids are available in cream or gel form, and they typically work by removing dead skin cells on the surface of the skin, which prevents those cells from building up within hair follicles. Dr. Patel cautions against spending too much time in the sun when using this form of treatment. “It’s important to avoid excessive exposure to sunlight and UV when using topical retinoids or medications that contain retinoids like Epiduo and Ziana.”

Oral antibiotics: Oral antibiotics are typically prescribed in addition to topical treatment, but Dr. Patel says some antibiotics, like tetracycline, doxycycline, or erythromycin, can kill acne-causing bacteria, which can make your skin sensitive to sunlight and UV light.

Isotretinoin: Isotretinoin is an oral medication used to treat severe acne. “Isotretinoin makes your skin more fragile and may increase your skin’s sensitivity to light. You should avoid sun beds completely and should stay out of the sun as much as possible,” Dr. Patel says. “Even on cloudy days, you should wear a high-factor sunscreen of SPF 15 or above when you go outside.”

Although there are many acne medications that cause sensitivity to the sun, Dr. Patel says topical antibiotics, azelaic acid, or a birth-control pill used for acne regulation won’t cause photosensitivity and are safe to use in conjunction with sun exposure.

Other Skin-Care Ingredients and Treatments That Can Cause Photosensitivity

In addition to acne medications, there are a few skin-care ingredients and treatments that can cause photosensitivity. Alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs), which are often found in nonprescription skin-care products, can increase your skin’s sensitivity to the sun and risk of sunburn. “Look out for alpha hydroxy acid, lactic acid, tartaric acid, or glycolic acid in the ingredient list. If one of your skin-care products contains one of these ingredients, use sunscreen, wear protective clothing, and limit sun exposure when using this product and for a week afterward,” Dr. Patel says.

You may also want to avoid spending time in the sun after undergoing any procedures like a chemical peel or a laser treatment. If you do find yourself in the sun after one of these treatments, Dr. Patel suggests wearing a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses.

How to Protect Your Skin From Photosensitivity

If you’re concerned about spending time in the sun due to treatments or medications you’re on, don’t fret – we have some advice for how to protect your skin. The key? SPF, SPF, SPF. First and foremost, you should plan on wearing sunscreen every day, and make sure to apply an adequate amount. “While we would advise staying out of the sun where possible, especially around midday, if you’re going to be outside, protect your skin from the sun by wearing a broad-spectrum sunscreen every single day. If you’re concerned about your suncream breaking you out, choose one that’s labeled oil-free and noncomedogenic,” Dr. Patel says.

As for applying an adequate amount, a good rule of thumb for your face is to use enough product to cover both your index and middle fingers. In addition, Dr. Patel says, “You should reapply every two hours, or every 40 minutes when swimming or sweating excessively. Especially on the face, ensure you tap it in instead of spreading it.”

Dr. Patel also notes that you should avoid tanning beds: “Stay away from tanning beds and booths entirely for the whole time you’re using the medication. Tanning beds are a source of UV light and are just as damaging as the sun.”

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