Sun allergy: itchy and burning skin

Pimples and an itchy rash instead of sun-tanned skin: a sun allergy causes the skin to react to UV light with unpleasant irritation. Find out here what types there are and how you can prevent sun allergies.

01.06.2022 Laetitia Hardegger 6 minutes

What could be better than the feeling of the first rays of sunshine on your skin in spring? However, you could do without the small, red bumps sprouting on your skin that itch and burn and make sunbathing unpleasant. Skin reactions after contact with sun rays are popularly called sun allergies, although they are not actually allergies as such.

What is sun allergy?

The medical designation for sun allergy is photodermatosis and is a generic term for different skin conditions that are triggered by a reaction to sunlight. What they have in common is that the body’s natural protective mechanism against UV rays fails, leading to symptoms such as itchy skin, burning, blisters or wheals.

The exact causes and mechanisms of these pathological skin changes have not yet been conclusively researched.

Factors that can trigger sun allergy are:

  • UVA and UVB rays
  • Fragrances and essential oils
  • Preservatives in creams and lotions
  • Emulsifiers in creams and lotions
  • Paradoxically, certain UV filters in sunscreens, for example PABA
  • Medicines, e.g. sulphonamides, indomethacin, St John’s wort

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What are the symptoms of sun allergy?

The skin can react to the sun in different ways. The following skin reactions are common in sun allergy:

  • A blister is a cavity filled with (clear) fluid.
  • A papule is a round to oval nodule on the surface of the skin.
  • A plaque develops from papules that have moved together and merged to form a (plate-shaped) plateau.
  • Pustules are cavities filled with pus.
  • Wheals are an elevation of the skin surrounded by redness that usually itches and burns, such as with stinging nettles.

What are the different types of sun allergies?

The most common type of sun allergy is polymorphous light eruption. It occurs on parts of the body that are not yet used to sun: face, neckline, shoulders, neck, arms and legs. The name affix “polymorphous” means that the symptoms are varied and – depending on the person – very different. Please note: UVA rays can also trigger polymorphous light eruption in glazed rooms or vehicles.

Symptoms

The symptoms usually appear hours or days after sun exposure:

  • Itchy and burning skin
  • Reddish patches, blisters and papules
  • Swollen skin in the affected areas

Just as sun allergy is not an allergy, Majorca acne is not acne – it does not present with pus-filled nodules or blackheads. It also has nothing to do with Majorca. The scientist who first described it in 1972 called it that because many people get it during their holidays.

It is also considered a subtype of polymorphous light eruption and occurs on the same parts of the body. The skin irritations are likely due to the hair follicles becoming clogged and inflamed. The cause is thought to be the interaction of UV radiation and components of oily sunscreens. 

Symptoms

The symptoms of Majorca acne appear a few hours after exposure to the sun:

  • Very itchy skin
  • Red spots, pimples, skin elevations (wheals), pinhead-sized nodules (papules) and pustules

A photoallergic reaction feels like a sunburn. Sometimes, minimal exposure to the sun is enough to cause burning redness or blistering of the skin. This is due to chemical reactions between a certain substance in the body and the sunlight. These substances can be medicines such as antibiotics and painkillers, dyes or cosmetic substances: upon entering the skin, a chemical reaction occurs in the body and causes the sunburn-like skin inflammation. Medicines that are safe to use on skin in winter can suddenly trigger reactions in the spring sun, for example. Occasionally, colour changes in the form of white or brown spots remain on healed skin areas.

Symptoms

Depending on the active ingredient, there are immediate reactions or – as in the case of polymorphous light eruption – delayed symptoms that only subside gradually, even if sun exposure is avoided:

  • Itching
  • Burning pain
  • Redness, small or large blisters

Solar urticaria is a special form of hives that is triggered by the sun. Histamines are released from the body’s cells, causing various symptoms. Unlike other sun allergies, in the case of solar urticaria, the body usually reacts with skin rashes and inflammation within minutes of exposure to light. Usually, the symptoms disappear after a few hours. The condition is very rare and the cause is unknown.

Symptoms

  • Itchy and burning skin
  • Reddening and wheals on areas exposed to light
  • In larger affected areas of skin: also nausea, drop in blood pressure and dizziness 

How is sun allergy treated?

No matter what type you suffer from: move out of the sun and stay out of it for the time being. If you have a mild sun allergy, symptoms such as itching, skin irritation or pimples will go away on their own after a few days – usually without leaving any traces on the skin or permanent damage.

For more severe symptoms, anti-inflammatory ointments, creams and lotions containing cortisone can provide relief. Itching can be cured with antihistamines. These are used in particular to treat solar urticaria.

Healing, cooling household remedies

Some household remedies have a cooling and healing effect. However, they should only be used to relieve mild skin irritations. If you have open sores or if the blisters have already burst open, you should consult a healthcare professional.

Aloe vera

If you apply aloe vera to the affected area, it will soothe the skin and relieve itching. A cooled gel or the juice directly from the leaf of the aloe vera plant works best. If you use ready-to-use products, look for perfume-free ones.

Healing clay

Healing clay contains minerals, has an anti-inflammatory effect and soothes sun-damaged skin. Simply mix the healing clay with cold water to form a spreadable paste and apply to the affected areas. Allow to dry and rinse off with water. Done.

Cottage cheese compresses

Our grandmas already knew this: cottage cheese is a real all-rounder. Cottage cheese compresses to relieve sunburn are a well-known household remedy that also helps with sun allergy. Cottage cheese cools and soothes the skin and relieves itching and mild inflammation. Generously spread the cottage cheese on a clean kitchen towel and place it on the affected area.

Apple cider vinegar

A very effective household remedy to relieve the itching associated with sun allergy is ordinary apple cider vinegar. Rub the skin with a solution of two teaspoons of apple cider vinegar and 250 ml of boiled water. The tincture does not need to be rinsed off; the unpleasant smell of vinegar will disappear quite quickly.

Cold compress

Apply a cold compress to the affected area. It can relieve the itching and the rash.

How can you prevent sun allergy?

Let your skin get used to the sun slowly

We sit in the office all year round and then suddenly burn in the sun for hours: no wonder our skin overreacts. If you let your skin get used to increased UV exposure during the holiday slowly and with a good sunscreen, you have a better chance of enjoying your holidays without a sun allergy.

Cover yourself

Wear clothes that cover your skin. Do not forget a sun hat.

Use sunscreen

Always apply sunscreen regularly and several times a day. Keep the following in mind:

  • Effective sunscreens filter out UVA and UVB rays.
  • The sun protection factor should be at least 30 to 50.
  • Ideally, they contain antioxidants that provide additional cell protection and thus increase the protective effect.

Avoid cosmetics and perfumes while sunbathing

Perfumes, body sprays or scented body lotions can severely irritate the skin in the sun, trigger itching and cause a sun allergy. It is better to use unscented products during the summer months.

Read more

Sunburn: what you need to know
What causes sunburn? How can you protect yourself? And which household remedies help treat the symptoms? Find out here.
July 20, 2021

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These ten tips will help you beat the heat.
June 11, 2020

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