How Does the Sun Affect Eczema-Prone Skin?

When you have atopic dermatitis, the most common type of eczema, a lot of work goes into caring for your skin. Eczema affects skin in many ways, notes the National Eczema Association (NEA). You may itch, skin may be dry and red, or there may be scaly patches on your body.

If you have well-controlled eczema thanks to topical moisturizers, prescription medications, and good identification and management of triggers, you may also be thinking about how summer will affect your skin and how you can give your skin that natural-looking sun-kissed glow — in a safe way. Self-tanners may indeed be one option, even when you have eczema.

As the Skin Cancer Foundation says, “there is no such thing as a safe or healthy tan.” That’s because sun (ultraviolet, or UV, light) exposure increases your risk of a variety of skin cancers. This applies to people who have eczema, but there’s a caveat. “In general, sunlight in moderation can be very helpful for eczema. When you look at rates of eczema throughout the U.S. and world, research shows there is less eczema in populations that live closer to the equator,” says Jonathan Silverberg, MD, PhD, MPH, an associate professor of dermatology at the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences in Washington, DC.

In addition, phototherapy — that is, using UV light — is one treatment for eczema, notes the NEA. “We do not entirely understand the mechanism here, but certain wavelengths of UV light are thought to suppress cutaneous immune cells in a way that reduces inflammation and flaring,” Dr. Hollmig explains. Still, dermatologists do not suggest that people with eczema get a sunburn. Phototherapy treatment is used in a controlled and skin-safe way in the dermatologist’s office. For instance, there is minimal risk of skin cancer, and side effects like redness or burning are not common, according to NYU Langone Health.

There’s also the possibility that sunlight will trigger eczema flare-ups. This happens in a “fairly small subset” of patients, notes Dr. Silverberg. In addition, many patients find that heat and sweat cause symptoms, and both are common in the summer. It can often be difficult to untangle whether your eczema-prone skin is reacting to the sun, heat, or sweat.

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