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Living With Psoriasis: Sun Protection

Medically reviewed by Kevin Berman, M.D., Ph.D.
Written by Victoria Menard
Posted on February 24, 2021

Sun protection is a vital part of anyone’s skin care routine. However, it’s especially important for people with psoriasis to protect themselves from the sun’s harmful rays to prevent flares.

Psoriasis is a common skin disorder that occurs when an immune reaction causes your body to mistakenly produce too many skin cells. Many people with the condition experience flare-ups, or periods of worsened symptoms, during the summer, especially as the result of sunburns. As the Skin Cancer Foundation notes, however, the sun can burn and damage the skin year-round. In fact, snow reflects up to 80 percent of the sun’s UV light (the rays that cause damage to the skin), so sun protection is necessary every day — no matter the time of year.

“I had a bad winter with my psoriasis, [and I] couldn’t wait for summer to treat my skin with some sunlight. To my surprise, it got worse!” wrote one member of the MyPsoriasisTeam.

Although sunlight can benefit people with psoriasis, it can also pose additional risks. Fortunately, there are several ways to help reduce sunlight’s negative effects on your psoriasis symptoms.

Sunlight and Psoriasis

Sunlight’s effect on psoriasis symptoms can vary widely among individuals. Some people say their condition improves during the summer months, thanks to the abundance of natural ultraviolet light (sunshine). Many MyPsoriasisTeam members swear by the positive effects of sunlight on their symptoms. “The sunlight has been doing a great job on my psoriasis,” wrote one member. Another shared, “Out of all the creams or ointments that I have used, the most effective treatment was natural sunlight.”

This isn’t a coincidence. Ultraviolet light has proven beneficial in treating psoriasis. Phototherapy, also known as light therapy, is a U.S. Food and Drug Administration-approved treatment for psoriasis. Light therapy is typically prescribed by a dermatologist and can include exposure to sunlight or other medically supervised UV treatments. Psoralen and UVA (PUVA) and ultraviolet light B (UVB) treatments are the most common forms of phototherapy for psoriasis. If your skin shows signs of sunburn from phototherapy treatments — redness, itchiness, or sensitivity — talk to your doctor about decreasing the dose of light you are receiving.

That said, not all people with psoriasis reap the benefits of light therapy. One MyPsoriasisTeam member wrote that they were “tired of this sunlight” because “my skin seems to get worse.” Another shared, “For some reason, I feel the lack of sunlight is doing my body good.”

Why Sun Protection Matters for Psoriasis

Despite its potential benefits in clearing psoriasis, sunlight can damage the skin, which may explain some members’ negative experiences.

People with psoriasis face unique risks from unprotected sun exposure. Sunburns, which cause injury to the skin, can lead to what is known as the Koebner phenomenon — the appearance of new skin lesions on previously unaffected areas after experiencing skin trauma. In people with psoriasis, the Koebner phenomenon can result in new psoriasis plaques developing across the areas of skin injured by a sunburn.

Chronic (repeated, long-term) exposure to ultraviolet radiation from sunlight is linked to the majority of nonmelanoma skin cancer cases in humans. So while sun exposure may be a part of your treatment, sun protection should not be forgotten.

As always, talk to your doctor about any new form of light therapy, and discuss how you can minimize your risk of cancer or flare-ups when spending time in the sun.

Staying Safe in the Sun With Psoriasis

According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, no single method of sun protection can provide complete defense against harmful rays. That said, there are some things you can do to keep yourself as safe as possible in the sunlight.

Wear Sunscreen

The American Academy of Dermatology Association advises that people with psoriasis wear broad-spectrum, water-resistant sunscreen with a sun protection factor (or SPF) of 30 or higher. The Skin Cancer Foundation also recommends that people with sensitive skin look for sunscreens containing zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. These formulas, sometimes called mineral or physician formulas, may be less likely to cause irritation. They may leave a white residue on the skin but provide long lasting, broad-spectrum sun protection.

Sunscreen should be applied in a thick layer to all of your skin — including plaques — that clothing doesn’t cover, according to the National Psoriasis Foundation. It’s important to wear sunscreen every day, even when it’s slightly cloudy or cooler outside. As the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) notes, sunscreen is most effective when combined with other methods of sun protection, such as hats and protective clothing. Reapply sunscreen every two hours to provide continuous protection.

Stick To the Shade and Stay Inside

Ultraviolet rays can damage the skin in as few as 15 minutes. The best defense against the sun is to avoid it: Stay inside on particularly sunny days, especially between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., when the sun is at its peak intensity.

If staying indoors isn’t possible, avoid prolonged sun exposure as much as you can. When spending time outside, take refuge in the shade, sit under a sun-protective umbrella, or find cover under an awning, covered porch, or a shady tree. Keep in mind, however, that shade isn’t a perfect shield. Ultraviolet rays can pass through leaves and branches or reflect off of water, sand, concrete, glass, and even snow.

Cover Up With Clothing

Clothing, especially when made from tightly woven fabric, offers great protection against UV rays. Unlike sunscreen, which can wear off over time, clothing offers consistent protection throughout the day. Long-sleeved shirts with a high neck and long pants or skirts are ideal, because they cover and protect more skin.

When choosing clothing that will shield you from the sun’s rays, look for its ultraviolet protection factor, or UPF, rating. This number can be found on some clothing, hats, and fabrics. It indicates what fraction of the sun’s UV rays can penetrate through the fabric to reach your skin. A T-shirt with a UPF of 40, for instance, protects you from all but one-fortieth (2.5 percent) of UV radiation.

The CDC offers some helpful information for determining which articles of clothing will provide the best protection. Darker-colored fabrics offer better protection than lighter colors, while wet clothing provides far less UV protection than dry clothes. It’s important to note that the typical T-shirt offers minimal UV protection, so you’ll need to use additional types of sun protection.

Hats

Hats can provide an additional layer of protection to the areas of the body that see the most sun. The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends wearing a wide-brimmed hat (3 inches or more) to protect the eyes, ears, face, and neck. The CDC also notes that hats made from canvas or other tightly woven fabrics offer more protection from UV rays than straw hats. Baseball caps do not protect the ears or the sun coming in from the side.

Sunglasses

Sunglasses protect both the eyes and the tender skin around them from harmful UV rays. As one MyPsoriasisTeam member shared, “Sunshine always makes me feel better, although my eyes stream with tears if I do not wear my sunglasses.”

Another noted that their eyes seem to be “very sensitive to the light,” although eye drops and sunglasses have helped a lot.

Look for sunglasses that block both UVA and UVB rays. Most sunglasses sold in the United States do.

Meet Your Team

MyPsoriasisTeam is the social network for people living with psoriasis and psoriatic arthritis and their loved ones. Here, members come together to ask questions, offer advice and support, and share their daily experiences.

Sunlight and sun protection are frequently discussed by members on MyPsoriasisTeam. Has sunlight helped your psoriasis symptoms? Do you have any tips for protecting your skin on sunny days? Join the conversation today by leaving a comment below or by posting on MyPsoriasisTeam.

Posted on February 24, 2021
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Kevin Berman, M.D., Ph.D. is a dermatologist at the Atlanta Center for Dermatologic Disease, Atlanta, GA. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Learn more about him here.
Victoria Menard is a writer at MyHealthTeam. Learn more about her here.

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