Lupus and Sun Exposure: What to Know

Lupus is an autoimmune disease in which your body mistakenly attacks your joints, muscles, and skin. These attacks can show up as joint swelling or muscle soreness for some people with this chronic disease. Butterfly-shaped skin rashes, mottling (red or purple marbled skin), and sensitivity to the sun are also common lupus symptoms.

About 5 million people worldwide, and 1.5 million in the United States alone, have been diagnosed with lupus. The disease is most common in early to mid-adulthood, and 90% of cases develop in women.

Find out why people with lupus may be more sensitive to sun exposure and what you can do to protect your skin.

sun protection lupus

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UV Radiation Risks

Ultraviolet (UV) light is a type of radiation emitted naturally by the sun. These rays have some health benefits, like the generation of vitamin D, but there is a lot that can go wrong if you get too much UV exposure. Exposure to the sun and artificial sources of light like tanning beds can cause:

Sensitivity to the sun and UV radiation can be impacted by certain medications or diseases, like lupus.

Lupus and Sun

Lupus can increase photosensitivity (immune system reaction to the sun's rays), a symptom that affects between 40% and 70% of people who have lupus. UV radiation damages cells and alters DNA. The damage can be more severe in people with lupus because their cells are more sensitive to light and damaged cells are removed from the body more slowly, which can cause an attack on the immune system.

Symptoms

UV light and some artificial light can trigger reactions in people with lupus. These reactions can happen immediately or develop weeks later and include:

Other symptoms of lupus triggered by sun exposure are:

  • Rashes
  • Skin lesions

Rashes or skin lesions that appear after sun exposure can come and go within hours or days of exposure, or they can last for months. UV light can also cause a lupus flare (or flare-up), which is a body-wide worsening of lupus symptoms, including fatigue, joint pain, tingling, and numbness.

How Much Sun Exposure Is Too Much?

The amount of sun a person with lupus can tolerate is unique to the individual. Some people's symptoms are triggered by exposure to fluorescent lighting and photocopiers, while others may not develop symptoms for days after sun exposure. Talk to your healthcare provider if you think you have photosensitivity due to lupus.

Tips for Protection

Protecting your skin from UV radiation is recommended for everyone, but it's even more important for people with photosensitivity from lupus. Below are some strategies to protect your skin from the sun and other forms of UV light.

Wear Sunscreen

Apply sunscreen to your skin to provide a chemical or physical barrier to UV radiation. Most commercial sunscreens offer a combination of these two types of protection, as follows:

  • Physical barriers include mineral ingredients like titanium dioxide or zinc oxide. These finely ground minerals sit on the skin's surface and reflect UV rays away from you.
  • Chemical absorbers offer a thin, protective film that absorbs UV rays before they can penetrate the skin.

Proper sunscreen application is crucial, regardless of which type you choose. Most people need to apply a palmful of sunscreen every two hours or more often if they are getting wet or sweaty.

Choosing Sunscreen

Sunscreens that offer broad-spectrum protection against both ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB) rays and have a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 30 are recommended. Sunscreen can expire, so be sure to check your sunscreen expiration dates from year to year.

Wear Protective Clothing

Most clothing offers protection against UV radiation. You can purchase clothing or hats with UV-blocking properties or products to wash your clothes in to increase their level of UV protection. Sunglasses are also important protective gear, as UV radiation can cause eye damage and other problems.

Stay in the Shade

Avoiding sunlight or other sources of strong UV radiation will help protect your skin. The sun is strongest in the summer between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. in most locations. During these hours, finding shade may be your best choice. Remember that UV rays can pass through windows and that you are exposed to UV radiation on cloudy days.

When to See a Healthcare Provider

Lupus treatment varies from one person to the next and changes over time. If you have lupus, schedule regular appointments with your healthcare provider to review treatment and symptoms, especially after sun exposure. Some cases of photosensitivity in lupus are mild, while others can require more intense treatments to avoid a larger flare-up.

Summary

Exposure to UV radiation from natural and artificial light can be damaging to everyone, but minimal exposures can cause a flare-up if you have chronic lupus. This autoimmune condition can trigger larger attacks, so knowing your triggers and avoiding exposure is important if you have lupus with photosensitivity.

A Word From Verywell

The symptoms of exposure to the sun can be uncomfortable when you have lupus. Avoiding sun exposure by seeking out shade and wearing sunscreen and protective clothing can help to reduce your chances of experiencing a flare-up.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What causes lupus?

    Lupus is an autoimmune condition with mysterious origins, but it has been linked to genetic and environmental factors.

  • How is lupus diagnosed?

    Lupus is diagnosed based on an examination of your symptoms and health history. Blood and tissue samples can help confirm a diagnosis.

  • What are the signs of lupus?

    Lupus has many symptoms and affects connective tissue throughout the body. Rashes, joint pain, and muscle aches are common in many people with this condition, but many other symptoms have also been reported.

  • What does lupus do to the body?

    Lupus is an autoimmune condition that causes inflammation and damage in the body, especially in connective tissue. Advanced or severe cases of lupus can also impact your heart or nervous system.

9 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Medline Plus. Lupus.

  2. Lupus Foundation of America. Lupus facts and statistics.

  3. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Health effects of UV radiation.

  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. UV radiation.

  5. Lupus Foundation of America. UV exposure: What you need to know.

  6. Lupus Foundation of America. Research on photosensitivity among people with lupus.

  7. MD Anderson. How does sunscreen work?

  8. Skin Cancer Foundation. Ask the expert: Does sunscreen stay effective after its expiration date?

  9. American Cancer Society. How do I protect myself from ultraviolet (UV) rays?

By Rachael Zimlich, BSN, RN
 Rachael is a freelance healthcare writer and critical care nurse based near Cleveland, Ohio.