Living With Lupus: Tips for Sun Protection
Sun exposure can trigger several lupus symptoms, but it doesn't mean you have to hide indoors. Proper protection can keep you active and in control of your life.
Lupus and Sun Exposure
Protecting yourself from sun exposure is an essential part of lupus management. Photosensitivity can trigger symptoms that range from skin rashes to serious internal organ damage. While excess sun exposure can cause flares in systemic lupus—the most common form of the condition—living with lupus should not mean depriving yourself of the outdoors.
Click through the slideshow to learn how to protect yourself from the sun and lead an active life.
How UV Radiation Affects Lupus
Ultraviolet (UV) light is invisible radiation and contains three layers: UVA, UVB, and UVC. Studies published in Autoimmunity Reviews have shown that UVB rays cause the most problems in lupus patients, but UVA radiation is also partly responsible. Exposure to sunlight may trigger the following symptoms:
- lupus rash or lesions
- joint pain
Wear Protective Clothing
Sunlight should be reflected or absorbed by clothing before it reaches your skin. Avoid thin, light-colored fabrics that have a loose weave because UV rays can pass right through. Instead, wear tightly woven, long-sleeved shirts, pants, and wide-brimmed hats.
Dark colors reflect UV rays better than light colors. Unbleached cotton absorbs UV and polyester or silk with a high sheen reflects UV. High-tech clothing specifically designed to block UV rays can be found online and at sporting goods stores.
Ultraviolet Protection Factor (UPF)
Sun-protective clothing has a rating known as ultraviolet protection factor (UPF). The UPF denotes the amount of UV light absorbed by the fabric. Like when you’re choosing sunscreen, check clothing labels for a high UPF. Levels range from 15-50+.
Sun-protective clothing could lose its effectiveness if stretched, weathered, or over-washed, so be sure to take proper care of it.
Choose the Right Sunscreen
When selecting a sunscreen, look for these indications on the bottle:
- sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or more
- broad spectrum protection (blocks UVB and UVA)
- physical blockers (zinc oxide, titanium dioxide)
Test the sunscreen on a patch of skin to check for sensitivity or allergy. The chemical composition of sunscreen changes over time and when exposed to heat, so store it in a cool place and throw it away after one year.
You may not be as covered as you think. The middle of the back, sides of the neck, temples, and ears are commonly missed areas. If applied too thinly, sunscreen won't meet its SPF rating. How much is enough? The Skin Cancer Foundation suggests:
- 1 teaspoon for face and neck (half a teaspoon for children)
- 1 ounce (enough to fill a shot glass) for full-body coverage
- applying sunscreen 30 minutes before heading outside
More Sunscreen Mistakes
Remember to reapply sunscreen liberally and frequently after spending time outside or in the water. The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends reapplying sunscreen every two or three hours. One recent study by the University of New Mexico College of Pharmacy suggests that reapplying sunscreen 20 minutes after going outside may significantly reduce your UV exposure.
Don’t be fooled by fog or clouds—UV rays are still strong in cool, cloudy weather.
Medications and Sun Exposure
The harmful combination of chemicals and light is called phototoxicity. Phototoxic reactions occur when your skin is exposed to the sun after taking certain medications orally, topically, or via injection. Some of these drugs Include:
- certain antibiotics
- nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
- certain cardiac medications
Talk to your doctor to find out if any medications you are taking might cause problems.
Don't Forget About Artificial Light
It’s not just sunlight you need to guard yourself against. For people with lupus, artificial light can also cause problems. Sources of this light include:
- fluorescent lighting
- tanning beds
Limit or avoid exposure to these artificial light sources. Avoid tanning beds altogether, as they could worsen your condition.
Staying Sun Smart
There are several practical precautionary measures you can take to block dangerous UV radiation. For example:
- Try your best to stay indoors when the sun is at its strongest—between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.
- If you have to be outdoors and can’t find shade, use an umbrella and wear protective clothing.
- Install sun shields on your house and car windows for UVA protection.