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How the Sun Impacts Different Skin Conditions

Sunlight. Good for your skin or dangerous? The answer: It depends. There are so many conflicting reports and experiences when it comes to sunlight and vitamin D. Those who live with psoriasis and atopic dermatitis experience remission when exposed to moderate sunlight. Those who live with skin cancer detest the sun and advise avoiding it at all costs.

There is also the link between mental health, stigma, and simply finding the confidence to expose the skin - especially those who live with hidradenitis suppurativa.

Sun and Skin

Sunlight gives us a boost of vitamin D. However, too much of it can speed up skin aging, causing wrinkles and age spots. At the same time, the UV light from the sun also improves some skin conditions while making others worse. Here is a look at how the sun could affect various skin conditions.

Psoriasis

When you have psoriasis, the sun can provide relief from itchy, sore, discolored skin. Ultraviolet (UV) light, called phototherapy, is even a common treatment for the condition.1,2

Spending time in the sun may help clear your psoriasis, but it will not happen immediately. You will need to expose your skin to the sun slowly to give it time to adjust and avoid burning. A sunburn can cause a psoriasis flare-up. Your doctor can guide you in starting a sunlight regiment.1,2

Atopic dermatitis

Sunlight can improve symptoms of some types of atopic dermatitis (also called eczema). The skin condition causes dry, itchy skin and rashes. People with contact and discoid eczema tend to see their symptoms get better when they spend time in the sun.3,4

Not everyone with atopic dermatitis benefits from the sun. One study shows that in 4 out of 10 people, sun exposure had no effect on their atopic dermatitis or made it worse. In rare cases, the sun can cause a type of eczema called photosensitive eczema.3,4

It is also possible that some medicines, chemicals, and plants can make your skin more sensitive to the sun. Talk to your doctor if the sun worsens your condition.3,4

Skin cancer

Too much sun exposure can also raise your risk for skin cancer, the most common type of cancer in the United States. When UV light enters skin cells, it can harm the genetic material (called DNA) within.
DNA damage can cause changes to cells that make them rapidly grow and divide. This growth can lead to clumps of extra cells called a tumor, or lesion. These may be cancerous (malignant) or harmless (benign). The risk is highest in those who have: 5

  • Light-colored skin and hair
  • Freckles
  • A history of skin cancer
  • More sun exposure

Hidradenitis suppurativa

Some call vitamin D the “sunshine vitamin” because your body makes it when you bare your skin to the sun’s rays. Vitamin D could also ease the symptoms of hidradenitis suppurativa (HS). This skin disease causes painful lumps beneath the skin. 6,7

Researchers gave supplements to people with HS who had low levels of vitamin D. Data shows that 63 percent saw a slight improvement in their HS symptoms after their vitamin D levels returned to normal. This was a small study, and the effect of vitamin D needs more research. Until there is more solid proof, talk to your doctor before taking any supplement for HS. 6,7

Protective measures and fashion choices

In general, everyone should protect themselves from the sun. If you are worried about the effects of sun exposure, cover up as much as possible. Wear long pants, long sleeves, sunglasses, and a hat. Some fabrics even have special UV protection. Look for labels with UPF or ultraviolet protection factors.

With some skin conditions, you may be more sensitive to chemicals in sunscreen. Read the label closely to avoid known irritants. Also, test any new sunscreen on a small patch of skin for a few days before using it on your whole body.

Understanding sunscreen and SPF

Even with protective clothing, you should still wear sunscreen. Sunscreens come labeled with a sun protection factor (SPF), such as 15, 30, or 50. A sunscreen labeled SPF 15 means it will take you 15 times as long to get a sunburn as it would if you had no sunscreen on. A sunscreen labeled SPF 30 means it would take you 30 times as long to burn.
The effectiveness of sunscreens is affected by several factors. A sunscreen’s active ingredients can break down over time, so be sure to check the expiration date on the container.8be outdoors for a while, look for SPF 30 or higher. Put it on again every couple of hours, or if you have been sweating or swimming. Use sunscreen between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Sunscreen is especially important at that time when the sun’s rays are most intense.

The bottom line

The sun impacts different skin conditions in different ways. There is no one answer as to whether it will be helpful or harmful to you. There is also the confidence factor. Some with skin conditions may feel ashamed or depressed baring their skin.8

As long as you're smart about how (and when) you catch some rays, you can safely look forward to whatever tomorrow's sunrise brings your way.

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