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.
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.
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:
Whether you seek advice on diet and exercise, coping with a diagnosis or a recommended treatment, we will give you expert and individual answers. Our health advisors will provide you with helpful information and practical tips.
The skin can react to the sun in different ways. The following skin reactions are common in sun allergy:
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.
The symptoms usually appear hours or days after sun exposure:
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.
The symptoms of Majorca acne appear a few hours after exposure to the sun:
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
Apply a cold compress to the affected area. It can relieve the itching and the rash.
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.
Wear clothes that cover your skin. Do not forget a sun hat.
Always apply sunscreen regularly and several times a day. Keep the following in mind:
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.
Julia Pieh (doctorate in pharmacy and toxicology, pharmacist, naturopath) works as a health consultation advisor and quality coach at Helsana. She is committed to providing health advice to our clients. Ms Pieh provided the editorial team with advice and input for this article.