For all the good things it does for us, the sun can also be a menace: It can burn your skin, mess with your eyes, and even damage your vehicle. It might also be responsible for that rash you’ve been Googling since you discovered it across your shoulders. You could have a “sun rash” or “sun allergy” and never have even known it, so let’s figure out what that is and what you can do about it.
What is a sun allergy?
According to Mayo Clinic, the term “sun allergy” can be used to describe a variety of conditions, but typically, it refers to any itchy, red rash that shows up on skin after sun exposure. Being prone to a sun allergy can be hereditary or it can crop up unexpectedly thanks to outside factors, like medication or exposure to certain plants, such as giant hogweed, wild parsnip, or lime. Antibiotics, antifungals, antihistamines, cholesterol medication, diuretics, hormones (like birth control), nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, and retinoids may increase your risk of photoallergic reaction, for instance.
The most common kind of sun allergy is polymorphic light eruption, which is also called “sun poisoning.” The Cleveland Clinic identifies actinic prurigo, photoallergic reaction, and solar urticaria as other types. The signs of a sun allergy vary depending on what is really causing the issue, but in general, watch out for these:
- Little bumps that could become raised patches
- Scaling, crusting, or bleeding
- Blisters or hives
- Stinging or burning
You’re most likely to see these symptoms on skin that was exposed to the sun, so if you’re seeing bumps or crusties on your arms but none where your swimsuit or t-shirt usually covers, that’s a hint you’re dealing with a sun allergy. Expect to see symptoms within minutes or hours after sun exposure.
For the most part, this should clear up on its own, but if your skin’s reaction is “unusual” or “bothersome,” per Mayo, go to a doctor, particularly a dermatologist. You may need steroid creams or pills. Rarely, according to the Cleveland Clinic, sun allergy can cause systemic symptoms like headache, light-headedness, fainting, nausea, vomiting, wheezing, or anaphylaxis. If you experience those symptoms, get to the doctor.
How to prevent a sun allergy
Check with your doctor if any medication you’re on might be contributing to your propensity for skin reactions after sun exposure. Chemicals and medical conditions may impact this, too, so if you have any kind of cosmetic treatment, procedure, or condition, check in with the professionals you work with on any adverse reactions with the sun you might expect. Per Mayo, substances in fragrances, disinfectants, and even some chemicals in sunscreens might trigger skin allergy symptoms when your skin is exposed to them, then to sunlight.
Also be aware that while anyone can have a sun allergy, certain types are more common for people with lighter skin. If you have dermatitis, you also have more of a risk of having a sun allergy, and the same goes for if you have blood relatives who experience sun allergies.
Avoid a sun allergy by doing the following:
- Try to stay out of the sun between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.
- Gradually increase the amount of time you spend outdoors instead of throwing your skin cells into sudden exposure.
- Wear sunglasses.
- Wear protective clothing, like long-sleeved shirts and wide-brimmed hats.
- Use sunscreen.
- Avoid any of your known triggers.
What to do if you experience an episode
You probably don’t even want to think of the words “oozing,” “crusting,” “swelling,” or “blisters” when you’re planning your next beach outfit. Still, it can happen, and if it does, you should get out of the sun as soon as you notice. Put a cool, damp cloth on the affected areas, drink plenty of water, and pick up an over-the-counter antihistamine to tackle on the symptoms.