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Photosensitivity and Caring for Your Skin

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Updated February 10, 2008

People who are affected with systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) (about half), and especially those affected with cutaneous lupus (about 70% to 90%), often discover that they are highly photosensitive, or sensitive to sunlight. Reasons why lupus patients are more susceptible to sunlight are still poorly understood.

It is suspected, however, that UV light causes skin cells to express particular proteins on their surface, attracting anitbodies. The antibodies in turn attract white blood cells, which attack skin cells, which leads to inflammation. Apoptosis, or cell death, normally occurs at this point, but it is amplified in lupus patients, which increases inflammation.

Either way, this sensitivity results in rashes and other skin conditions like sunburn. In systemic lupus patients, this photosensitivity can also trigger flares, including joint pain and fatigue. If left unchecked, this condition could lead to skin cancer.

Certain medications, like tetracycline antibiotics (often used to fight acne), can increase a lupus patient’s photosensitivity risk.

Thus, lupus patients are instructed to take care of their skin and stay out of the sun.

But how do you stay out of the sun when sun is all around? Here are some simple tips:

  • Avoid the Midday Sun: The intensity of UV light at this time of day is usually at its peak. It is suggested that avoiding noonday sun can eliminate the need for other tactics. Some literature suggests avoiding the sun between 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., if possible.

  • Wear the Correct Clothing: If you’re going to be out in the middle of a summer day, leave the tank top and shorts at home. Broad-brimmed hats and tightly-woven, loose-fitting clothing with long sleeves and long pants are all the rage for those affected with lupus.

  • Use Sunscreens: After sun avoidance and adequate clothing, application of sunscreen is your next line of defense. Sunscreens absorb or scatter UV light, depending on what chemicals are in your concoction. Use the correct amount. A light coating won’t due. To get the full protection factor of your sunscreen, you should use at least an ounce of sunscreen if you stand about 5 foot, 8 inches tall. And wear sunscreen year-round, not just in the summer.

  • Turn Off Other Sources of UV Light: This includes fluorescent tube lights, halogen bulbs, and, according to the British Association of Dermatologists, environmentally friendly light bulbs (compact fluorescent tubes). And keep the cover of the office copier closed.

  • Take Your Medicine as Directed: If you’re taking a medication for your skin condition, make sure you take it as directed by your doctor.

  • And Know What You’re Taking: As stated above, some drugs can worsen your skin condition, including drugs used to treat lupus, like nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs.

  • Watch Your Make-Up: Try to by brands that are also UV protectors, and that are hypoallergenic.

Sources:

Lupus: A Patient Care Guide for Nurses and Other Health Professionals, 3rd Edition, Patient Information Sheet #7, Skin Care and Lupus National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases. Revised September 2006.

Photosensitivity Lupus Foundation of America. Collected January 2008.

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