If you have lupus, protecting yourself from sun exposure is an essential part of managing your condition. Many people with lupus experience photosensitivity or unusual sensitivity to sunlight. This can trigger symptoms such as skin rashes, itching, and burning. Excess sun exposure can also cause flares in systemic lupus, triggering symptoms such as joint pain, weakness, and fatigue. In some cases, it can even cause internal organ damage.
Ultraviolet (UV) light is a type of invisible radiation that’s present in sunlight. There are three types: UVA, UVB, and UVC. According to research published in Autoimmunity Reviews, UVB rays seem to cause the most problems in people with lupus. UVA radiation can also contribute to symptoms.
If you have lupus, exposure to sunlight may trigger symptoms such as:
- lupus rash or lesions
- fatigue or weakness
- joint pain
- internal organ swelling
To protect yourself from UV radiation, wear sun protective clothing that reflects or absorbs sunlight before it reaches your skin.
UV rays can pass through thin, light-colored, and loosely woven fabrics. For optimum protection, wear tightly woven, dark-colored, long-sleeved shirts and pants, as well as wide-brimmed hats. Certain types of fibers also provide more protection than others. Unbleached cotton absorbs UV rays, while polyester and silk with a high sheen reflect UV radiation. You can also find high-tech “sun protective clothing” designed to block UV rays at many sporting goods stores.
Sun protective clothing has a rating, known as its ultraviolet protection factor (UPF). This denotes the amount of UV radiation absorbed by its fabric. Look for clothing that’s labeled with a UPF of 25 to 50 or higher.
Sun protective clothing can lose its effectiveness when it’s stretched, weathered, or over-washed. Be sure to take proper care of it and replace it when it wears out.
In addition to wearing protective clothing, cover exposed skin with sunscreen. Look for sunscreen that:
- has a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or more
- provides broad spectrum protection, blocking UVB and UVA rays
- contains physical blockers, such as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide
- is hypoallergenic
Test the sunscreen on a patch of your skin to check for signs of sensitivity or allergic reactions. Store it in a cool place and throw it away after a year. Sunscreen can become less effective over time and when it’s exposed to heat.
Avoid common mistakes
Apply sunscreen about 30 minutes before you head outside. Make sure to cover easy-to-miss areas, such as:
- the middle of your back
- the sides of your neck
- your temples
- your ears
If you apply it too thinly, your sunscreen won’t provide the protection indicated by its SPF rating. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, you should use about an ounce of sunscreen — or a shot glass full — to cover your body.
Reapply sunscreen liberally and frequently when you’re spending time outside. Add a new coat at least once every two or three hours. You may need to reapply it more frequently if you’re swimming or sweating profusely.
Don’t be fooled by fog or clouds: UV rays can still be strong in cool and cloudy weather.
Stay in the shade
To protect yourself from UV radiation, avoid sunlight when it’s strongest. For example, stay indoors between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. If you have to go outside, stay in shade provided by trees, an umbrella, or an awning. Installing sun shields on your house and car windows can also provide the UV protection you need.
Ask your doctor
Phototoxicity is a dangerous reaction that can happen when light and certain chemicals combine. For example, phototoxic reactions can occur when your skin is exposed to sunlight after you take certain medications. These medications include certain:
- antibiotics, such as azithromycin
- nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as diclofenac
- oral diabetes drugs
- cardiac medications
Talk to your doctor to learn if any medications you’re taking might cause problems.
It’s not just sunlight you need to guard yourself against. For people with lupus, artificial light with UV rays 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, since they could worsen your condition.