What the Yuck: Can I be allergic to sunlight?
April 1st, 2012
09:00 AM ET

What the Yuck: Can I be allergic to sunlight?

Too embarrassed to ask your doctor about sex, body quirks, or the latest celeb health fad? In a regular feature and a new book, "What the Yuck?!," Health magazine medical editor Dr. Roshini Raj tackles your most personal and provocative questions. Send 'em to Dr. Raj at whattheyuck@health.com.

Q: When I’ve been in the sun for a few days, my chest and arms get itchy and break out in red splotches. Am I allergic to sunlight?

A: As weird as it may sound, it is possible. There are actually a few types of sun allergies.

The most common is polymorphic light eruption (PMLE), which often shows up - sometimes within minutes - as an itchy red rash on body parts exposed to sunlight, especially the neckline, the backs of the arms, the face and the hands.

You could also simply be extra-sensitive to the sun - medical conditions, such as lupus, can increase your sensitivity, as can medications like Retin-A, sulfa-based drugs (like some antibiotics), and certain nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs.

Be sure to discuss your symptoms with your doctor so she can figure out what’s going on. Treatment for a sun allergy typically involves steroid creams or antihistamines.

And, of course, if you’re prone to bad reactions when you bask, be vigilant about using sunblock and covering up.

Copyright Health Magazine 2011

soundoff (43 Responses)
  1. star

    are you putting on sunscreen when you are out in the sun? My son discovered that when he went on vacation and was going to be out in the sun a lot and was putting sunscreen on several times a day, day after day, he broke out in an itchy rash. Turned out to be allergic to the sunscreen! Apparently just applying it once in a while, or once a day did not do it, just when he was using it a lot in a short time, like at the beach. He tried some different ones the dermatologist recommended, and the rash went away.

    April 1, 2012 at 10:22 | Report abuse | Reply
    • pk

      I swell and blister with sunscreen. It took a lot of discussions with doctors and friends, but my allergy was with an ingredient in the sunscreen. Look for a PABA-free sunscreen. Usually products for babies (e.g., Banana Boat) are PABA-free. Aveeno makes a good PABA-free product, too. And, yes, be care of makeup!! Most companies make products with an SPF ingredient, but it is not PABA-free!

      April 2, 2012 at 11:20 | Report abuse |
    • CJ in San Diego

      I'm allergic to sunscreen (and most other lotions) too... methylparaben, in my case. But I work outdoors (as a professional driver, not out in the sun) and as long as I keep my exposure only to what is necessary, I don't burn so I rarely use sunscreen. When I do, I use the Banana Boat stuff.

      April 2, 2012 at 19:03 | Report abuse |
    • Kelli

      Sunscreens are the culprit for me. I also thought I was developing an allergy to sunlight a few years ago too. My skin broke out in rashes, but the worst was that my eyes would burn and water so much that I could barely see. I stopped using the sunscreens with all the weird chemicals in them (and that is essentially every brand of sunscreen) and the rashes and horrible burning eyes stopped being a problem for me.

      I use Oil of Olay moisturizer with spf 15 now and it seems to be the only thing that I can wear on a consistent basis without having problems. I assume that this particular product lacks some of the chemicals present in the true sunscreens (and is therefore not called a suncreen). I have to apply this product more often perhaps and it is definitely more expensive, but it is worth it. I use it on my face and my entire body and it works just fine. I do still get a pretty good tan, but not burned.

      I used to be able to wear sunscreens until about 5 or 6 years ago. I think they are adding in some new chemicals that they didn't use before and when they changed the formulas, they really messed up their products. If I had to choose between having no protection and having the rashes and eye problems, I would definitely choose the no protection avenue. Some of those chemicals are probably carcinogens themselves.

      April 4, 2012 at 16:30 | Report abuse |
  2. TracyL.

    I had surgery for skin cancer last summer. It was a small sot, but the incision runs from my temple to below my ear. Without a family history, the guess was numerous bad sunburns I have had in my life, I am very fair skinned. I was told to wear the highest SPF sunscreen in the future. I was really nervous about that. With sensitive skin, any makeup that says SPF on it had given me a rash. I had to search around, but I found 70 SPF sunscreen, Rite Aid drug store brand at about $8 for 8oz as compared to other generics running from $18-$29. It has the skin cancer foundation seal on it. I wear it every day, all unvovered skin. Not a rash yet. Lasts in water for 80 minutes. Just a tip for those with sensitive skin wether to chemicals or the sun.

    April 2, 2012 at 10:33 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. tokencode

    Most likely you're a vampire...

    April 2, 2012 at 11:28 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Mike

    Allergy is an immune mediated response to an antigen. An antigen is a physical particle to which components of your immune system may react. For example, pollen, which has a surface upon which antibodies mayu bind to mediate the allergy.

    Sunlight, by contrast, has no such phsyical surface. Neither antibodies nor T cells can "bind" a particle of sunlight to elicit an allergic reaction.

    But the sunlight is capable of altering certain compounds in your skin, changing them into antigens, and it is these altered compounds which can bring about an immune response, and thus an allergic reaction.

    April 2, 2012 at 11:43 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Sanjeev

    This could happen due to a side effect of a prescription drug you might be taking. My wife had it last year and couldn't understand why all of a sudden she developed a rash while out in sun. Later last year she stopped taking the medicaiton and she no longer has the rash problem.

    April 2, 2012 at 12:00 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. FormerNYer

    When I was a child and would go out into the bright sunlight I would sneeze two or three times so I used to tell people that I was allergic to the sun. As it turns out it was just photaic sneezes (your pupils dialate to quickly) which is common among light eyed people. Too funny, this story reminded me of that. I still sneeze in bright light though...

    April 2, 2012 at 12:23 | Report abuse | Reply
    • kevin

      This is why they tell people to look at the sun when they're drowsy.

      April 2, 2012 at 22:20 | Report abuse |
  7. deathstalker187

    I have had this problem and may still have it a bit some times. Particularly because I live in Michigan the sun is out only about 6 months of the year during the summer. When I first get out into the sun for the first week my skin can get irritated and may break out. This only happenes for the first real exposure after that it doesnt botther me again for the rest of the year. I remember one year where this had happened to me but all my skin was now used to it and it wasnt a problem but I had, had on a watch witch boke the next time I was out in the sun the only place that broke out was on my arm where the watch had been but once my skin got sun for a day or two this went away and no longer happened.

    April 2, 2012 at 12:43 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Brent Jatko

      I'm glad I don't live in MI. I like the sun year-round.

      April 3, 2012 at 11:13 | Report abuse |
  8. ck81

    I have this problem – it started during college and persists to this day. It only happens the first major exposures to sun after not being in the sun for months. It is itchy and ugly and lasts for about a week, and then I'm fine as long as I continue to have some exposure to the sun. It's annoying, but now that I have an idea as to the why – it makes it easier to deal with. As a side note, this year with our mild winter I made sure to wear a tank top that exposed my neck and upper chest any time it was sunny and warm enough – and now that it's 80 degrees out I'm having no problems with any rash. 🙂

    April 2, 2012 at 13:09 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Monica

    As a fair skinned person, I've had itchy blistering of my skin from sunlight, all my life. Because I can get this rash when driving a car (tinted window) or with sunscreen (35-70spf), I've come to the conclusion that it's the heat that creates the rash. As a kid I was accutely sensitive (my parents loved to vacation 2 or 3 weeks at a beach resort) and the results were often akin to heat stroke (and that rash! ugh!). Couple that with photosensitivity leading to migraines, and I am NOT an outdoor person – beautiful day or not!

    April 2, 2012 at 13:11 | Report abuse | Reply
    • 123

      Windows and sunscreens don't always block UVA rays, so those could still be the culprit.

      July 6, 2012 at 00:19 | Report abuse |
  10. JeanneLH

    My best friend in high school was alergic to the sun and had skin problems until her periods started. After that she had beauiful skin since she had been out of the sun most of the time.

    April 2, 2012 at 13:42 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Brent Jatko

      I had a teacher in high school who was allergic to sunlight.

      April 3, 2012 at 11:15 | Report abuse |
  11. Will

    Let's be clear – Polymorphic Light Eruption is NOT an allergy to sunlight. You do not develop antibodies against the sun, nor are there "sun particles" floating about that make you itch and sneeze. That's physiologically impossible. Rather, UV in sunlight brings about a change in the skin in some persons (still poorly understood), and you have an immune reaction against those UV-modified self molecules.

    I know some will think I'm splitting hairs, but I think we can all expect a more comprehensive and less dumbed down explanation from a MD.

    April 2, 2012 at 17:04 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. kristi

    I have this same thing. Like the others I usually only get it for a few weeks until I get used to the sun again. I am not particulary fair- 1/2 Italian. I lived in Bermuda for a a few summers when I was younger and found a sunscreen by Piz Buin called Sun Allergy and it was the only thing that actually worked for me. I never found it in the states but did buy it on ebay a few times. I take 1/2 dose of benedryl before I go out in the beginning of the season which also seems to help. Regular sunscreen doesn't seem to help at all for me with respect to the red itchy bumps. I wish you the best in finding something that works for you.

    April 2, 2012 at 17:40 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. AB

    Solar Urticaria... i've had it for years... hives from being in the sun for a few minutes and they dissapear within 1 hour. No one has touched on this... decensitizing your skin (perticular areas) a few times a week will keep this managable. This has worked better than being pumped with steroids and IVIG treatments... but it requires you to live in a sunny envoironment and make time to sit in front of a window in a bathing suit (or outdoors) for about 5-10 minutes a few times a week. It could be worse... everyone has something...

    April 2, 2012 at 18:37 | Report abuse | Reply
    • GP in Ont

      Yes, I suffer same thing. Didn't have it my entire life though. Happens year round for me now, even cloudy days in winter, I get red and itchy within a couple minutes. So I apply sunscreen any time I head out and there are no problems.

      April 2, 2012 at 20:38 | Report abuse |
  14. Jannifer

    Years ago, my mother had problems with "sun poisoning," a very fine, itchy rash she got if she was out in the sun for too long. This was NOT a sunburn, as she was very careful about using sunscreen and limiting her exposure. Our family doctor recommended that she take 2000 mg. of Vitamin C three times a day. It worked for her. When I started having the same problem in my late teens and early twenties, I did the same thing.

    I am unsure of the exact reasoning for this treatment, but I do know that Vitamin C acts as a very mild antihistamine. In any case, it might be worth a try if you would prefer not to take antihistamines unless there's no other option. I'm all for taking medication whenever it's needed, but the Vitamin C might work for you and probably won't hurt. (Obviously if you have a sensitive tummy or should avoid Vitamin C or citrus because of interactions with certain prescription medications, this dosing isn't an option.)

    April 2, 2012 at 18:43 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. CJ in San Diego

    It's possible – as someone else posted – that the allergy is to something else and the sunlight is just a coincidence (or the reason you are using the something else, in the case of sunscreen lotion). I'm allergic to methylparaben, which is an ingredient in most lotions (including most brands of sunscreen)...

    April 2, 2012 at 19:00 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. brianna

    I am a vampire so I am allergic to the sun.

    April 2, 2012 at 19:50 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. Nancy

    I was diagnosed, after biopsies, with Polymorphic Light Eruption nearly 30 years ago while living in Miami. It started about five years before that , but would disappear after about a week of getting sun. In Miami, with the stronger and more constant sun it got really bad and people would actually stop and stare at me (arms, hands, chest and shoulders). It left lifelong scars. At the same time I started having severe sun issues, I was also diagnosed with Endometriosis. Interestingly, within three months of successfully getting pregnant, the sun issues completely disappeared - never to return again.

    April 2, 2012 at 19:51 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. Northern California

    My face swelled and turned red sending me to the doctor. We narrowed the reaction to sunscreen and I can no longer use brands that I used for years, even Clarins reacted. After some searching I have settled on Alba Botanical (Hawaiian 45 green tea, they have many products). It is paraben free, all botanical, readily available (Rite Aid, etc), inexpensive. I wore Mabeline for many years, the last I bought caused painful reaction, (Allmay works ok). My legs and arms now break into red bumps with or without sunscreen. I am past 70 been in the sun all my life, go figure!

    April 2, 2012 at 19:54 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. Dan

    Sunlight converts a cholesterol-like chemical in your skin into Vitamin D (possibly lowering total cholesterol levels?). The conversion of the 7-dehydrocholesterol might cause blood to flow more freely under the skin, causing the rash. Just a wild theory.

    April 2, 2012 at 20:30 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. suebon

    I started getting fine red itchy rashes about 20 years ago whenever I was in the sun for more than 15 minutes between about 9 am and 4 pm. Within a few years I started getting hives. I thought it was from sunscreen, but I stopped using sunscreen and the hives continue. For the last few years I've tried to spend 10 mins multiple times a day in the sun, and it has let me spend as much as 30 minutes on occasion without the hives, provided I do it before 10 am and after 3 pm. I also take antihistamines when I know I'm going to be in the sun, and they seem to work best if I take them for several days before I know I'll be in the sun for more than 30 mins at one time. Yet, they don't fully solve the problem. I'm not on any medication and have no health issues that I know of.

    April 3, 2012 at 00:34 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. Mike in NYC

    Would your name happen to be Edward? Do you sparkle in the sunlight???

    April 3, 2012 at 10:20 | Report abuse | Reply
  22. Jean-Luc

    Back to your castle Dr. Acula!

    April 3, 2012 at 10:47 | Report abuse | Reply
  23. Aubrey

    I take antihistamines 24 hours a day. Since i started taking them I have had a reaction to the sun similar to an allergy. I get red bumps and red blisters from being in the sun for just 10 minutes. I get them from driving in my car with the darkest tint legal on all of the windows. I have this reaction no matter what time of year. Apparently, after years of trying to figure out what the problem is, I found out that there is a small percentage of people that because they take antihistamines they develop a sensitivity to the sun that causes these red bumps and blisters. I have to take antifistamines to live a comfortable life. I now make sure that I use sunblock every time I will be outside at all. I keep it in my car year round and use lotion with SPF. This helps a great deal, but I still have this problem all year long.

    April 3, 2012 at 10:48 | Report abuse | Reply
  24. Josh

    According to Dr. House, yes, you can be allergic to sunlight.

    April 3, 2012 at 12:30 | Report abuse | Reply
  25. svann

    On house its usually wilsons disease, or lupus.

    April 3, 2012 at 17:31 | Report abuse | Reply
  26. Kerry

    I was also diagnosed with PLE. It has gotten to the point that I can no longer be in the sun between 8-5. My hands get it the worst. It takes about 4-5 days after sun exposure and then all heck breaks lose. My hands will swell, become covered in blisters which break open and become infected and it takes weeks for them to go away. I will have about 50 blisters on my fingers and I can't even wear my wedding ring in the summer. I have to take prednisone and antibiotics and have had many biopsies and it happens every year, several times a year. I live in Wisconsin and summers are short but I have also started having breakouts in the winter while ice fishing with very little sun exposure. I do not take any meds and do not use sunscreen because it makes the itching worse. My hands, arms, lower legs, and the top of my feet look horrible from all the scars plus the bigger scars from biopsies which have all been negative. Bottom line – it really stinks to have this. I have to wear a hat, long sleeves, pants, and gloves whenever I am outside. There is no cure.

    April 4, 2012 at 14:02 | Report abuse | Reply
  27. neeke

    I would call state dhec office (department of health and environmental control) to see if they can check the air quality. they might not if you are the only person complaining. but it couldn't hurt.

    April 4, 2012 at 22:29 | Report abuse | Reply
  28. LJ

    Kerry – I too suffer from this issue – have you checked with a dermatologist? I've been dx with PMLE but also was tested for Lupus. I found that straight zinc oxide does help some as does Blue Lizard sun screen. When I go to the beach, it's with long pants, long spf+ shirt and a hat and i still break out. You may want to google swim tights or swim pants. I found a pair at Athleta.com Good luck – I know your pain and suffering and am with you.

    April 5, 2012 at 14:59 | Report abuse | Reply
  29. celia

    You could also simply be extra-sensitive to the sun – medical conditions, such as lupus, can increase your sensitivity, as can medications like Retin-A, sulfa-based drugs (like some antibiotics), and certain nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs.
    does anyone have facts concerning sulfa drugs, and examples of anti inflammatory drugs?

    July 20, 2012 at 02:34 | Report abuse | Reply
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