Skin myth: Does the sun help acne?

Many acne sufferers believe that the sun has a positive effect on the quality of their skin. But how much truth is there in this?

What does sun exposure do to acne?

We look at whether or not the sun can improve the condition of acne-prone skin, and how we can also effectively protect it from UV damage.

At first glance, it appears as if the myth might be true. Research(1) has made correlations between acne and a lack of vitamin D (which we get from sunlight), and general improvement in skin quality after sun exposure(2). But if we look a little closer, the answer isn't quite as simple.

After sun exposure, skin can sometimes look better because it provokes the production of melanin (the body's natural UV defense mechanism) which gives the skin a tan. This tan not only reduces the appearance of spots (less visible on darker skin) but also makes our complexion look healthier. However the acne is still present.

What's more, while the sun might dry out the skin and reduce sebum production, the effect is only a temporary one. Studies suggest(3) that sunlight can cause dryness and dehydration, which in turn prompts the skin to produce more sebum and leads to more breakouts after the sunlight exposure.

According to dermatologist Dr Nina Roos, this myth exists because in the first few days after being in the sun, it does dry out acne and pimples. However the effects are short-term. “After sun exposure the epidermis (the skin’s top layer) is thickened, and sebum production slows down. But then the skin produces more sebum in dry conditions, leading to breakouts", she explains.

How can you treat and prevent sun-exposed acne?

Not only can acne actually become aggravated by sun exposure, but the skin itself can be damaged by UV rays. “Acne-sufferers, particularly those with sensitive skin (as it is more susceptible to stimulants), have a high risk of permanent damage, especially scarring, if they over-expose their skin to the sun without the correct suncare”, Dr. Roos explains. She adds that red spots turn dark/brown even on fair complexions, but especially on dark skin. “For acne-prone skin, SPF 50 is recommended to prevent dark spots”, she advises. It’s better to take extra-precaution because post-inflammatory pigmentation (dark spots exposed to sun) are very difficult to treat.

If you have burnt your skin, keep applying sunscreen while the skin is still red and damaged. “After the redness has faded, you have two options: 1. Use your acne treatment cream or 2. Use AHA (Alpha hydroxy acid) or retinol to prevent dark spots and the thickening of the epidermis (which occurs when sunburnt)”, she suggests. It’s also worth noting that vitamin C is also a key ingredient when it comes to treating dark spots.

And lastly, don’t forget that even on cloudy days the skin is still exposed to UV radiation, hence the importance of applying suncare all-year-round, not just on vacation or sunny days out. For those that suffer from acne, you don't have to choose between a tan and acne: there are specific suncare products that have been formulated for acne-prone skin using non-comedogenic ingredients which means that it doesn’t clog pores. Clear, protected skin? Yes please. 

1. Lim, S.K. et al. ‘Comparison of Vitamin D Levels in Patients with and without Acne: A Case-Control Study Combined with a Randomized Controlled Trial’ in PLOS One journal 11.8 (2015)
2. Berg, M. ‘Epidemiological studies of the influence of sunlight on the skin.’ in Photodermatology 6.2 (1989) pp. 80-4
3. Allen, H.B. et al, ‘Acne Vulgaris aggravated by sunlight’ in Cutis 26.3 (1980) pp. 254-6,

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