Is the Sun a Friend or Foe to People With Eczema?

Photo: Stocksy/Marko Milovanovic

As summer approaches, everyone and their dermatologist is loading up on sunscreen in an effort to get ahead of those harmful UVA and UVB rays. During the winter, you should obviously still be wary of sun damage (UV rays don't hibernate, after all) but it's top of mind this time of year because the UV indexes tend to surge and everyone's looking for their best block. For people living with eczema, however, the relationship to the sun is a bit more complicated.

Eczema, which is a form of atopic dermatitis, affects about 10 percent of the United States population. It's an inflammatory skin condition caused by the skin's immune system being hyperactive, says Ali Hendi MD, a professor at Georgetown University and co-founder of Luminora,  a line of UPF clothing. Essentially, this overproduction of skin cells results in dry patches that can become thick, inflamed, and itchy.  Due to this diminished barrier function, it can also mean that the skin has a harder time defending itself from outside irritants.

So, it should come as no surprise that as beauty buzzwords focusing increasingly on defending against what's going on outsidepollution and environmental aggressors, for example—climb, so do instances of atopic dermatitis. One theory as to why? More urban lifestyles not only expose those with the skin condition to more harmful irritants, they also strip away time spent outside and in the sun.

Keep scrolling to find out how the sun can help with eczema and how to stay protected.

How UV benefits eczema-prone skin

According to the American Cancer Society, rates of melanoma (the deadliest form of skin cancer) have been on the rise for the past thirty years in this country, so slathering on SPF has become a top priority for anyone looking to step foot in the sun. Here's the wild twist: A common treatment to suppress the hyperactive immune system is "phototherapy" or "light box therapy" during which eczema patients are exposed to UVB rays (which only reach the top layers as opposed to UVA, which penetrates more deeply).

But it's not cause to spend unprotected time in the sun. While the treatment offers potential gains in active eczema, Dr. Hendi says that it's not failsafe, "the cumulative exposure increases the odds for skin cancer in years to come." One promising alternative? UV-free blue light treatment, which in a small study showed promising results at suppressing the immune response that produces eczema lesions.

Why eczema-prone people should still take precautions

Even though low levels of controlled UVB can help in certain circumstances, it's still important to guard yourself from the sun. So what's the solution? Somewhat surprisingly it's not to just slather yourself in any and all sunscreen. Dr. Hendi advises against using sunscreen with chemical blockers such as oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate, octinoxate if you have eczema. These work by absorbing the sun and converting it to heat and then helping it to leave the skin, but in people with eczema, Dr. Hendi says that they can cause irritation, burning, and itching.

Instead, he says to stick to physical sunscreens with zinc oxide or titanium dioxide since they create a physical block meant to keep UV rays from penetrating the skin. They're non irritative but effective since Dr. Hendi says they act as "physical barriers that simply stay on the surface of the skin and physically block the UV radiation."

In addition to slathering on a physical sunscreen Dr. Hendi and Ted Lain, MD a dermatologist at Austin's Sanova Dermatology say to wear sun protective clothing. All clothing has some level of UPF in it (a white tee hovers around 5), but UPF-specific clothing has verified levels (usually around 30 or 50). It's helpful, first of all, because you don't have to reapply it every hour, and secondly because there's no risk of your skin reacting badly to chemicals or contaminants. Similar to the way SPF has to go through a testing process to ensure its validity, UPF clothing must do the same.

How to deal if you wind up with a sunburn

If you do end up with a sunburn (it happens to the most careful of people), "use calming and soothing lotions like aloe vera,  take a cool bath or shower, and try to avoid scratching or peeling the skin," Dr. Lain says. If your eczema is especially sensitive or if you're a tad bit nervous about irritating it further, Dr. Hendi says to slather on a fragrance-free occlusive moisturizer to help soothe the skin and prevent any water from leeching out of the tender areas. And with that you're armored up with all of the sun and skin care related information you need to have a fun and healthy summer (hopefully in Iceland).

During your next vacay make sure to slather on the sunscreen pre-boarding and don't forget to pack a good amount of seaweed.

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