Eczema that doesn’t respond well to topical treatments or that covers a widespread area of your body may benefit from a process called phototherapy.
Learn more about how this treatment works for eczema, as well as the potential risks and side effects.
Phototherapy is an FDA-approved treatment option that uses ultraviolet (UV) light.
Phototherapy is unlike an indoor tanning bed or being outdoors in direct sunlight. Your healthcare professional uses a controlled number of wavelengths for short amounts of time.
Also called “light therapy,” phototherapy is used to decrease your body’s inflammatory responses that lead to eczema rashes.
Within several weeks, phototherapy may reduce trademark symptoms of eczema such as:
- redness or discoloration
- swelling (inflammation)
For the treatment of eczema, phototherapy typically involves the use of UVB rays. Sometimes UVA rays may be used too, though this isn’t as common because of a higher potency.
Phototherapy may be provided by a dermatologist or from a technician at a hospital or outpatient facility.
Your doctor may also recommend phototherapy if the condition hasn’t responded to prescription products.
Phototherapy may help treat contact dermatitis as well. This type of eczema occurs when your skin comes into contact with irritants or allergens, and isn’t caused by underlying inflammation as is the case with atopic eczema.
While phototherapy can help improve this type of skin inflammation, the most helpful treatment in the case of contact dermatitis is identification and removal of the allergen.
As long as the allergen is still present in the environment all treatments will only be partially effective.
This treatment option may not be right for you if sunlight tends to be a trigger for your eczema. It’s also not recommended if you have a history of skin cancer.
UVA-based phototherapy isn’t safe for females who are pregnant or chest-feeding. However, UVB light is still considered safe, according to the National Eczema Society.
Before undergoing phototherapy for eczema, it’s important to weigh the potential benefits against any risks.
Advantages of phototherapy for eczema
- It may help clear your skin.
- You may experience fewer eczema rashes in the future.
- It may decrease the need for using topical medications.
Disadvantages of phototherapy for eczema
- While rare, light therapy may increase your risk of developing skin cancer.
- The treatment may worsen eczema if sunlight happens to be one of your triggers.
- Phototherapy can be time consuming, requiring multiple weekly treatments.
Phototherapy uses UV lamps for medical purposes, such as in the treatment of:
Unlike an indoor tanning bed, phototherapy is carefully administered by a technician who controls not just the amount of time you spend under the lamps, but the intensity too.
Before your treatment, the technician will apply a moisturizer to the treatment area. They will also provide you with goggles to protect your eyes.
You may need to take off some of your clothing to ensure the UV radiation effectively targets your areas of concern.
Your treatment may be performed as you stand in a large cabinet-like area that contains UV bulbs, via a hand-held wand, or hand-foot units that you may insert your hands or feet in for treatment.
According to the National Eczema Association, treatments last for several seconds or just a few minutes, depending on the extent of eczema rashes being targeted.
Finding a professional who performs light therapy for eczema
Phototherapy must be prescribed by a dermatologist. The procedure itself may be provided directly at your dermatologist’s office or at another facility such as an outpatient center or hospital.
To find a professional who performs light therapy for eczema, you may consider searching the following organizations for a dermatologist in your area:
According to the American Academy of Dermatology Association (AADA) and a 2008 research review, phototherapy is considered a safe treatment overall for eczema in all skin tones when conducted by a professional.
However, individuals with dark skin and people of color should choose a dermatologist with experience using phototherapy to treat skin conditions in skin of color.
There’s a chance for exacerbation if sunlight is one of your eczema triggers. Let the technician know ahead of time so they can adjust the UV lamps accordingly.
UV radiation may increase your risk of developing nonmelanoma skin cancer.
However, risks from phototherapy are considered low compared with indoor tanning beds, according to the AADA. Other possible side effects and risks include:
- increased itchiness
- redness or discoloration after treatment, similar to a sunburn
- tender skin
- dry skin
- burning or stinging
- acne breakouts
- signs of premature skin aging, such as wrinkles and age spots
- white and brown spots on your skin
- future cataracts
Short-term effects, such as redness or discoloration and burning, may be worse after 8 hours following your session but should improve after this time, according to the American Osteopathic College of Dermatology (AOCD).
You can help alleviate dry skin from your treatment by applying an emollient cream after each session.
Overall, side effects from phototherapy for eczema are considered minimal, according to a 2016 research review.
Your dermatologist or technician will monitor the amount of radiation you’re receiving and recommend short durations to help minimize any damage to your skin.
Depending on the severity of your eczema and your response to this treatment, light therapy sessions may last anywhere from a few weeks to several months, according to the AADA.
The AADA also emphasizes that you will need treatments two to three times per week on average. The technician will gradually increase the intensity at each treatment session.
It’s important to make all of your appointments, as skipping sessions could alter the treatment effects.
While phototherapy may help treat eczema rashes that don’t respond to medications, some people still need to use topical creams and ointments combined with this treatment.
It may also be helpful to use an eczema cream or ointment every day for maintenance. Look for products that won’t irritate your skin. They’re free of:
According to the National Eczema Association, you may see results in a few weeks, but it can take up to 2 months to see significant changes.
You should talk with your doctor if you’re not seeing improvements despite phototherapy. Also, call them if you’re experiencing any side effects or worsening symptoms.
After experiencing positive results, your eczema may be in remission. Since atopic dermatitis is a lifelong condition, it’s possible that you might need future phototherapy treatments if you experience a severe flare-up again.
Contact your dermatologist regularly to schedule skin checkups, even if your eczema is in remission. They may be able to spot possible long-term adverse effects, such as nonmelanoma skin cancers.
It’s important not to substitute this treatment with:
- indoor tanning beds
- outdoor tanning
The intensity of the above measures can’t be controlled and are unsafe for your skin overall.
Phototherapy is considered a second-line treatment for eczema when other measures haven’t worked for you. It may also help more widespread rashes by controlling inflammation and itchiness.
Side effects and risks are considered minimal because UV rays are gradually increased with each treatment.
However, it’s still possible to experience sunburn-like redness or discoloration and discomfort following your session. Talk with your doctor about all the risk factors associated with light therapy.
For best results, it’s important to adhere to your treatment plan. Phototherapy may require multiple weekly sessions over the course of several months to be effective for your eczema.