When You’re Extra Sensitive to The Sun — What to Know About Photosensitivity

Have you ever taken all the precautions possible to prevent getting a sunburn, yet gotten one anyway?

It’s possible that something in your daily routine is causing you to be photosensitive. Photosensitivity occurs when ultraviolet (UV) rays from either the sun or other light sources cause extreme skin sensitivity. This significant reactivity can expedite the sun damage process when your body is exposed to UV rays.

Photosensitivity falls into two categories; photoallergic and phototoxic.

Photoallergic reactions can occur in response to medication side effects or due to certain ingredients in topical products. This type of response typically becomes apparent a few days after sun exposure. Meanwhile, phototoxic reactions occur when a chemical in the body reacts negatively due to UV exposure. A common example of this happens when taking the antibiotic, doxycycline.

Phototoxic reactions show up quicker than photoallergic ones as you may see a rash develop within 24 hours of exposure.

Many everyday products and medications can cause photosensitivity. In order to best protect yourself from the sun’s UV rays, it’s first important to take a dive into what you’re using that may be making you more photosensitive.

Beauty Products

Beauty products that cause photosensitivity typically fall under the photoallergic category. While this doesn’t necessarily mean you’re allergic to the products or that they’re unsafe, it does mean you need to take extra precautions if you include the following products in your beauty routine:

Topical Acne Treatments

Acne treatments do a great job of fighting breakouts and giving you clear and healthy skin. However, many, if not most treatments, cause the skin to be extra sensitive to the sun. Products like topical retinoids, benzoyl peroxide, alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs), and chemical peels can all do this.

Anti-Aging Treatments

Like acne treatments, many anti-aging treatments contain similar ingredients that create a photosensitive reaction. Some anti-aging products that fall under this category include topical retinoids and hydroquinone. If not used properly, your skin can age quicker due to sun damage.


The process of exfoliation is a great step to incorporate into your beauty routine. However, when you exfoliate, you scrub away the dull, top layer of your skin. By removing this protective layer, you’re exposing the new, vulnerable skin underneath to harmful rays from the sun.

Tip #1: Apply correcting beauty products at night. Repairing products that include retinoids are great for anti-aging, acne, and even melasma but should only be applied at night and washed off in the morning.

Tip #2: Don’t make these exfoliating mistakes. Be sure to exfoliate only at night and always wear sunscreen afterward.


A photosensitive reaction via medication is considered phototoxic. If you take any of these medications daily or only for a period of time, it’s especially important to be proactive before going outside.


Both oral and topical antibiotics can make you more susceptible to sunburn. Although antibiotics are typically only prescribed for a short period of time, it’s important to lather on extra sunscreen for the time being.


Some oral antihistamines, like Benadryl, can reduce your ability to sweat. For this reason, it can make it difficult for your body to cool itself down and may even lead to heatstroke. Allergy medications won’t have this effect on everyone, but if it impacts you in this way, then it’s a good idea to limit your time outside to the early morning and evening.

Oral Contraceptives

Those who take oral contraceptives containing estrogen and/or progestin may experience more sensitivity to light than normal. Additionally, if the birth control you’re on is causing a hormonal imbalance, it can even lead to a skin condition called melasma. With the combination of hormones and UV exposure, your skin may start to develop dark, blotchy patches as a result.

Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs)

Drugs that are considered NSAIDs include common painkillers that contain ibuprofen. These can make you either photoallergic or phototoxic depending on your body’s reaction. Signs of increased photosensitivity as a result of NSAIDs are worsened sunburns, skin rashes, and hives.

Tip #3: Don’t just wear sunscreen, reapply it. To ensure your sunscreen is doing its duty in protecting your skin, you need to do yours by reapplying it every 2 hours. Reapply more frequently if wet from swimming or sweating.

Tip #4: Wear protective clothing. Nobody wants to stay inside on a perfect, sunny day — and you don’t have to. There are various clothing lines with UV protection that you can choose from. Wearing a hat to cover your head, ears, and neck is also a good idea to ensure optimal protection.

Other Things that May Increase Photosensitivity

Some photosensitivity contributors aren’t as obvious as others. Oftentimes, we don’t even realize these may be causing our painful sunburns or adverse reactions. Here are a few to keep in mind:

Sunscreen Ingredients

We all know that sunscreen is essential for protecting our skin. Nevertheless, there are ingredients in certain sunscreens to watch out for. Sunscreens containing oxybenzone can cause rashes in people when exposed to the sun. If you think you’re just allergic to sunscreen, this may be the actual culprit ingredient. Instead, try to stick to mineral sunscreens, which contain zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. For more information on sunscreen ingredients, visit EWG’s guide to sunscreen.


Certain essences commonly found in perfumes or scented beauty products can disrupt the health of your skin. Try to avoid fragrances that include bergamot, lavender, and sandalwood before spending time outside. When these ingredients are exposed to the sunlight, they may react adversely causing rashes, irritation, and sunburn.

Laser Hair Removal

Laser hair removal is great if you hate shaving and want smoother skin; who doesn’t, right? Although, it’s best to get this treatment during the fall, winter, or early spring months. This is because the treatment poses a greater risk of burning. You’re also more likely to blister and have irritated skin if exposed to the sun.

Eating Celery

Ever hear the hack that eating celery burns more calories than the amount you consume? Well, calories aren’t the only thing celery burns as it can also cause increased sunburns. Celery contains compounds called furanocoumarins, which cause the skin to be sensitive to bright light.

Tip #5: Pay attention to the UV index. First, it’s important to understand what the UV index means. The UV index is a numbered scale that represents the level of ultraviolet intensity, and since you may already be more photosensitive, it could be necessary to stay inside depending on the severity of UV rays.

Tip #6: Be careful near reflective surfaces. Sunburns aren’t specific to the summer months; they can happen year-round. Snow, water, and sand all can reflect the sun’s rays back at you, meaning you get hit by the sun’s rays not once, but twice.