How to Reduce Sun Sensitivity When on Certain Medications

written by Dr. Bolanle Aina - Jun 24, 2024

It is no secret that most medications have side effects. However, modern medicine has evolved to a place where we understand these side effects and how to sidestep them. Whether you're on oral pills or topical creams, photosensitivity reactions are a common side effect of many medications regardless of the route of administration. Understanding these reactions is essential to prevent and treat them when and if they occur. It is important to know your medications and identify which pills or creams you're using that might making your skin more vulnerable to sun exposure. Always read your medication labels and consult with your healthcare provider or pharmacist to confirm if your medications increase sun sensitivity.

How to Reduce Sun Sensitivity When on Certain Medications

Risks of drug-induced photosensitivity reactions:

Drug-induced photosensitivity reactions pose significant risks beyond the immediate skin damage. These reactions can lead to severe sunburns, persistent rashes, and blistering even after brief sun exposure. Over time, repeated episodes of photosensitivity can result in chronic skin inflammation and damage, which compromises the skin's protective barrier and accelerates the aging process, leading to premature wrinkles and sunspots.

There is also a potential link between drug-induced photosensitivity and an increased risk of skin cancer. Chronic inflammation and cellular damage from repeated sun exposure while on photosensitizing medications can lead to mutations in skin cells. This increases the risk of developing non-melanoma skin cancers such as basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma. It is therefore important to take caution and protect the skin adequately.

What are Photosensitivity Reactions?

Photosensitivity reactions, sometimes erroneously called sun allergy, occur when your immune system reacts to sunlight. It often shows itself as areas of itchy eruptions and areas of redness on patches of sun-exposed skin.

It can occur or be triggered when certain medications or their metabolites accumulate in the skin makes your skin sun sensitive. This results in adverse effects upon exposure to UV rays. Unlike sunburns, which affect anyone who spends too much time in the sun, photosensitivity reactions are often triggered by medications and can occur with minimal sun exposure.

Apart from medications, sun sensitivity can also be triggered by the use of perfumes, cosmetics, and essential oils. Furthermore, some medical conditions such as lupus or porphyria can make people more susceptible to photosensitivity reactions. The focus of this article is on drug-induced photosensitivity reactions.

Types of Photosensitivity Reactions

• Phototoxic Reactions

Phototoxic reactions resemble severe sunburn and are caused by the interaction of UV light with certain medications. This interaction leads to the formation of highly reactive oxygen molecules that induce skin damage. These reactions typically occur within hours of sun exposure and can cause redness, swelling, and blistering.

• Photoallergic Reactions

On the other hand, the less common photoallergic reactions involve the immune system (a type of hypersensitivity reaction). When UV light interacts with a medication, it alters the drug chemically, triggering an allergic response. Symptoms may include redness, itching, and eczematous rashes, often appearing a few days after sun exposure.

Difference Between Photosensitivity and Sunburn

Sunburn results from excessive exposure to UV radiation, leading to skin damage and inflammation. Photosensitivity reactions, however, can occur even with brief sun exposure and are triggered by certain medications, making the skin more susceptible to UV damage.

Medications That Cause Sun Sensitivity

1. Antibiotics

Certain antibiotics, such as tetracyclines, doxycycline, trimethoprim, fluoroquinolones (like ciprofloxacin), and sulfonamides, can cause significant sun sensitivity. These medications can lead to severe phototoxic reactions, making it crucial to limit sun exposure while taking them.


Over-the-counter Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen and naproxen pills can increase the risk of phototoxic reactions. These reactions can result in redness, swelling, and blistering, even after brief sun exposure. Even prescription NSAIDs like Celebrex and aspirin have also been recorded causing photosensitivity.

3. Acne Treatments

Medications used to treat acne, such as tretinoin and topical retinoids cream, can make the skin more sensitive to UV rays. Patients using these treatments should be particularly cautious about sun exposure to avoid severe reactions. It is often advised that you limit the use of retinoids to the evening because of this.

4. Diuretics

Diuretics like the thiazide-like diuretic (hydrochlorothiazide), often prescribed for hypertension and other conditions, can increase the skin's susceptibility to UV damage. They can cause eczema-like rashes and hyperpigmented rashes on the sun-exposed parts of the body. Taking extra precautions to avoid the sun is advisable if you are on these medications.

5. Antidepressants

Certain antidepressants, especially tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs) such as amitriptyline and selective serotonin receptor inhibitors (SSRIs) can cause photosensitivity reactions. These reactions may result in redness, itching, and rashes upon exposure to sunlight. Some TCAs have also been recorded to cause grayish discoloration of the skin.

6. Contraceptives

Some hormonal contraceptives can lead to increased sun sensitivity. This often appears in the form of reddish lesions and blisters. This is common among the implants and pills. Women taking these medications should use sun protection measures to prevent adverse skin reactions.

7. Transdermal Medications

Medications administered through patches, such as nicotine and hormone replacement therapy patches, can cause localized photosensitivity reactions. Protecting the area of application from sunlight is crucial. This is why areas less exposed to the sun, like your back or the inner part of your arm, are often used.

8. Others

Other medications, including certain antipsychotics, antiarrhythmics, and antifungals, can also cause photosensitivity.

This is in no way an exhaustive list. There are more medications out there that fall into this category. Always check with your doctor or pharmacist about the sun sensitivity potential of any medication you take.

Managing Sun Sensitivity

1. Avoid The Peak Sun Hours

Limit outdoor activities between 10 AM and 4 PM when UV radiation is at its strongest. This simple step can significantly reduce the risk of photosensitivity reactions when on these medications.

2. Use Broad-Spectrum Sunscreen

Apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen with SPF 30 or higher, protecting against both UVA and UVB rays. Reapply every two hours and after swimming or sweating to ensure continuous protection.

3. Wear Protective Clothing

Wearing long sleeves, wide-brimmed hats, and UV-protective sunglasses can shield your skin from harmful UV rays. Lightweight, tightly woven fabrics offer the best protection.

4. Seek Shade

Whenever possible, stay in shaded areas to minimize direct sun exposure. This can significantly reduce the risk of photosensitivity reactions while enjoying the outdoors.

5. Avoid Indoor Tanning

Indoor tanning beds emit UV radiation that can exacerbate photosensitivity reactions. Avoiding these entirely can help protect your skin while on medications that increase sun sensitivity.

6. Medication Timing

Taking photosensitizing medications in the evening can reduce the risk of daytime sun exposure. An example is the Retin used in the management of Acne. Discuss the best timing for your medication with your healthcare provider to minimize sun sensitivity.

7. Medication Alternatives

If a medication causes severe photosensitivity, ask your doctor about non-photosensitizing alternatives. There may be other options that do not increase your sun sensitivity as much.

8. Consult Your Doctor

Before starting any new medication, please consult your doctor about its potential for causing photosensitivity. They can guide managing sun exposure and minimizing risks.

Recognizing and Treating Photosensitivity Reactions


• Immediate

Immediate symptoms of photosensitivity reactions include redness, swelling, and pain occurring within hours of sun exposure. These symptoms resemble severe sunburn and require prompt attention.

• Delayed

Delayed photosensitivity reactions may include rashes, blisters, and peeling skin that appear hours to days after exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light. These sunburn-like symptoms, rashes, or other skin irritations are not immediately apparent after being in the sun. And maybe more difficult to identify the cause.

Treatment Options

• Topical Treatments

Topical corticosteroid creams such as hydrocortisone cream can reduce inflammation and itching caused by photosensitivity reactions. However, corticosteroids should not be arbitrarily started or used for prolonged periods. Always apply as directed by your healthcare provider to manage symptoms effectively.

• Oral Medications

Antihistamines such as Benadryl can help alleviate itching and other allergic symptoms associated with photoallergic reactions. Oral corticosteroids such as prednisone can also be used but may not be as easily accessible over-the-counter as they are prescription medications.

Seek Professional Help

If you experience severe or persistent symptoms, seek professional medical help. Your doctor can provide more specific treatments and advice tailored to your condition.

To Wrap Up

Photosensitivity reactions are a significant concern for individuals on certain medications. By understanding the risks and taking proactive steps to manage sun exposure, you can protect your skin and reduce the likelihood of adverse reactions. Always consult with your healthcare provider for personalized advice and treatment options.



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While the above article is based on thorough research, we do not claim to offer a substitute for medical advice from a qualified healthcare provider. The article was written for information and educational purposes only. We aim to provide helpful information to our readers, but cannot provide a treatment, diagnosis, or consultation of any sort, and we are in no way indicating that any particular drug is safe or appropriate for you and your individual needs. To receive professional medical attention, you must see a doctor.