Sun sensitivity: Who’s at risk, plus how to prevent & treat outbreaks


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Summer is synonymous with sunshine, but what if your body rejects the rays of that bright star? Sun sensitivities and allergies, or photodermatitis, is more common than you may think. According to the Mayo Clinic, polymorphous light eruption, or PMLE, is the most common sun sensitivity, affecting approximately 10% to 15% of people. 

An immune response to the sun causes red, itchy skin festooned with bumps and, in the case of less common but more serious solar urticaria, hives. You can develop photodermatitis at any time, regardless of race. While lighter skin is considered a risk factor for PMLE, dark skin is also prone. In fact, a recent study from the Department of Dermatology at National Cheng Kung University Hospital found a link to a specific form of PMLE, formerly known as solar dermatitis, affecting darker skin across the globe. 

Native Americans are at risk for a PMLE due to hereditary factors. Those with autoimmune diseases — such as HIV, lupus are also susceptible to sun sensitivity. 


How to treat & prevent further outbreaks of sun rash:

Avoid the sun, particularly when rays are strongest (i.e., 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.). Some sun rashes go away without treatment if you are out of the sun but return with continued sun exposure. Long sleeves, pants and wide-brimmed hats help. 

  • Use a PABA-free sunscreen. PABA, also known as para-aminobenzoic acid, can cause or exacerbate sun rash. 

  • Keep skin hydrated with a gentle moisturizer free of irritants. To soothe itchy skin, try soaking in a cool bath with colloidal oatmeal, such as Aveeno Soothing Bath Treatment, or make your own soak by finely grinding oats. 

  • For a more severe rash, your dermatologist can prescribe a corticosteroid; be sure to discuss possible side effects, such as adrenal suppression. 

  • A medical professional can help figure out the source of the sensitivity, such as exposure to certain plants, medications and nutritional imbalances, as well as attempt treatment for PMLE through phototherapy. 


If you are experiencing a rash or hives accompanied with such symptoms as wheezing, dizziness, difficulty breathing or vomiting, seek medical attention immediately. This could indicate a serious allergic reaction.