Can Sunlight Clear My Psoriasis Flare-Up?

Researchers have long known that exposure to sunlight can lead to a reduction in psoriasis flares. You may have heard about this connection from other friends with psoriasis or read about it. But what you may not know is whether sunlight can clear up an active flare. And if it can, how much sunlight does it take—and is the sun really your best option?

Can Sunlight Clear Up a Psoriasis Flare?

The simple answer to this question is yes, according to board-certified dermatologist Rhonda Klein, M.D., of Modern Dermatology of Connecticut in Westport. “The sun has been shown to improve or slow down a psoriasis breakout,” says Klein. “Specifically, the UVB rays can slow down the rapid growth of the skin cells, which occurs with psoriasis.”

She goes on to explain that sun exposure can also increase vitamin D levels, thus lowering inflammation in the body—another component of psoriasis.

“All of this said, it’s not something I recommend unless it’s done safely,” Klein adds. “Psoriasis tends to affect fair-skinned people, the same people most prone to skin cancer.” And sun exposure increases anyone’s risk of skin cancer, regardless of skin tone. Which means precautions should be taken when you’re out in the sun.

How Can I Make Sure My Sun Exposure Is Safe?

Board-certified dermatologist Peterson Pierre, M.D., of Pierre Skin Care Institute in Westlake Village, California, says that while moderate doses of sun exposure can reduce scaling and inflammation for people with psoriasis, “Too much sun exposure can make psoriasis worse and also has other risks, such as increasing the chances you develop skin cancer.”

Know that trauma to the skin can cause a psoriasis flare. And burns are trauma, so too much sun exposure could actually make your psoriasis worse.

Pierre suggests limiting your time outside to 20 to 30 minutes, no more than three to four times a week, taking extra precautions to avoid sunburns, including wearing sunscreen while you’re outside.

Klein is even more conservative in her recommendations, saying patients with psoriasis should always use SPF and spend no more than 10 to 15 minutes a day in the sun. To stay safe, she also recommends following these guidelines whenever you’re outside:

  • Use broad spectrum SPF 30+ sunscreen, and reapply often
  • Wear a hat
  • Stay hydrated

“For psoriasis patients in particular, I recommend using a mineral sunscreen versus a chemical one,” adds Klein. “Mineral SPF is less likely to cause irritation on already compromised skin.” Mineral sunscreens are those that use titanium dioxide or zinc oxide (or both) as their active ingredients.

Will Using a Tanning Bed Help My Psoriasis?

You might be thinking tanning beds are a great alternative to sun exposure. After all, you can control your sun exposure in a tanning bed pretty precisely, right? Wrong. Using tanning beds is actually riskier than being in the sun.

“Don’t do it,” Klein says. “Using a tanning bed just once before the age of 35 increases your risk of melanoma by 75 percent.”

Pierre agrees that tanning beds can be dangerous, reminding patients that they are on the list of known and probable carcinogens found on the American Cancer Society website. He also points out that UVB rays tend to be better for psoriasis, while most tanning beds deliver higher UVA rays with only small doses of UVB.

But if a patient insists on going to the tanning bed anyway, he urges them to proceed with extreme caution. “Always wear sunscreen,” he says. “Closely monitor your time, slowly increasing, as needed.”

Still, he warns that the less time psoriasis patients spend in tanning beds, the better. And the National Psoriasis Foundation agrees, making their stance on sun lamps and tanning beds pretty clear by backing the Food and Drug Administration’s restrictions on these devices and stating, “Only medical professionals should provide and advertise light therapy for the treatment of psoriasis.”

So … Light Therapy Can Be Provided by a Doctor?

Yes! Many dermatologists offer phototherapy to their psoriasis patients, and it is in this controlled setting that this type of treatment is best given, says Klein. “We can control the length of treatment and frequency, as well as the type of rays used,” she explains.

Phototherapy may be administered using a large, full-body unit that you step into, or it may be given using a handheld device for more targeted delivery.

“It’s very powerful, so you can accomplish quite a bit in a small amount of time,” says Pierre. But, he adds, “You must be very vigilant to monitor for sunburns.”

According to the American Academy of Dermatology, research has found phototherapy to be effective for treating various types of psoriasis, but it is not recommended for people:

  • Who have had melanoma or any other type of skin cancer
  • With medical conditions that make them more prone to developing skin cancer
  • With medical conditions, or who are taking medication, that make them more sensitive to UV light

What’s Most Important to Know About Sun Exposure?

Whether you’re heading outside for a day of fun or hoping the sun might help clear an active flare, Klein says it’s important to always remember sun safety. And not only because a burn could contribute to further psoriasis flares and increase your risk of developing skin cancer. “Some of the medications a psoriasis patient might be taking can increase photosensitivity,” she points out. “Furthermore, getting a sunburn on a healing psoriatic patch can cause lifelong scarring.”

Also, know that you might be better off trying phototherapy at the doctor’s office instead.

“I know that sunbathing can be a tempting solution, but it’s a temporary fix and one that’s associated with proven negative impacts, from skin cancer to accelerated signs of skin aging,” Klein cautions. “Speak with your board-certified dermatologist about the safer phototherapy alternatives to add to your treatment protocol.”