Learn whether the sun actually helps with acne, or damages your skin instead.
When you have acne-prone skin, it gets tempting to try anything that can make your pimples go away quickly. The problem is, it can be difficult to know which claims are reliable, and which ones will actually make you break out even more.
For instance, you may have heard that soaking up sunlight helps to get rid of acne… but is that actually true? Does the sun help acne, or does it only make it worse?
Well, that’s what we’re here for!
In this article, we’ll explain why people believe that the sun clears up acne, the risks of sun exposure, and how to protect your skin from the sun.
Can Sunlight Help Clear Up Acne?
It’s pretty easy to see why people think that the sun can help with acne. This stems from the belief that staying under the sun can dry up your zits, and even dry up your skin, making it less oily and therefore, less acne-prone.
These anecdotes become easier to believe because people who do them seem to have clearer skin! However, this may simply be because suntans conveniently disguise both acne and the redness associated with it. Hence, pimples become less noticeable—but that doesn’t mean they’re gone.
A study also found that ultraviolet (UV) light can trigger the release of nitric oxide into the bloodstream, activating regulatory T-cells that play a huge role in inflammatory immune response. This alleviates inflammation and redness caused by skin conditions such as eczema.
Other illnesses that are said to benefit from sunlight exposure include rosacea, seborrheic dermatitis, and acne vulgaris. However, since the anti-inflammatory effect is surface-level, it is entirely possible for acne breakouts to keep recurring.
A study in 2016 also tried to explore the relationship between acne severity and Vitamin D levels in 39 individuals. Results from this study found a correlation between vitamin D deficiency and the severity of acne in the study’s participants—the lower their vitamin D levels, the more severe their acne is.
What does this have to do with sunlight, you ask?
Vitamin D is known for its role not only in calcium synthesis, but also in the body’s immune response to skin conditions such as atopic dermatitis and psoriasis. Vitamin D is primarily obtained by the body when direct sunlight converts a chemical in the skin into calciferol, making Vitamin D levels in the body directly related to sunlight exposure.
These findings indicate a correlation, and not causation!
We can’t say for sure that Vitamin D can cure acne—only that Vitamin D deficiency is associated with more severe cases of acne. Hence, there remains no sufficient evidence to support the claim that sunlight can get rid of acne. One thing we do know for sure, prolonged exposure to ultraviolet rays can burn the skin and cause aging. Worst of all, this raises your risk of having skin cancer.
What Really Causes Acne?
Now, let’s review what causes acne in the first place.
Acne occurs when the hair follicles become clogged with a mixture of excess oil and dead skin cells.
The skin’s surface contains hair follicles–small holes where hair grows out of. Attached to these are sebaceous glands, which produce an oily substance called sebum. This lubricates the hair and the skin, preventing them from drying out.
When a person has acne, their sebaceous glands may be producing too much sebum. These oils may mix with dead skin cells and block the hair follicle, later becoming inflamed and causing a bump on the skin.
When the plugged follicle creates a closed bump at the skin’s surface, it’s called a whitehead. When it is open and exposed to oxygen, it becomes a blackhead. Other forms of acne include papules, which are small, red, raised bumps; and pustules, which are small pimples that contain pus. These often happen when certain strains of Propionibacterium acnes infect these plugged follicles.
Other factors affecting acne include genetics, hormones, and gender. Adult women are more likely to have acne, particularly, during their periods or pregnancy.
As you can see, none of the studies about sunlight cause any significant change to the main reasons behind acne development—sebum overproduction, dead skin cells, or even hormones and genetics. Therefore, we can’t say that sunlight can help clear acne.
Can the Sun Worsen My Acne?
The bad news is, excessive sun exposure is actually bad for acne and is possibly making your breakouts worse.
When sunlight dries out the skin, it doesn’t help get rid of acne; it actually does the opposite!
When your skin is dehydrated, it tries to compensate for the necessary oils on your skin that it lacks. The result? Your sebaceous glands end up overproducing sebum, putting you at risk of worse acne breakouts!
Did you know? Your risk of having a breakout increases even more when you get a sunburn.
Sunburn refers to red, painful skin that develops after too much exposure to UV light. This causes skin irritation and inflammation, which effectively counteracts sunlight’s potential anti-inflammatory effects. What’s worse, sunburn ultimately causes the skin to peel. This causes dead skin buildup, which, coupled with sebum overproduction in dehydrated skin, clogs the pores and leads to more breakouts.
Sunlight is also known to worsen post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH), which appears as dark spots on the skin. In fact, UV protection is absolutely necessary to lighten PIH and other acne marks.
Sun Protection for Acne Prone Skin
Instead of staying under the sun, you should be protecting yourself from it.
Sun protection is essential, first and foremost, because it reduces the risk of skin cancer. Studies have proven that regular sunscreen use helps prevent melanoma and squamous cell carcinoma, two common kinds of skin cancer.
Additionally, shielding your skin from the sun’s UV rays can help to avoid inflammation and sunburn, which increase your risk of acne breakouts.
Proven medication against acne, such as isotretinoin and tetracycline antibiotics, also make the skin more sensitive to sunlight. Not using sunscreen while taking these would make sunburn, hyperpigmentation, and even skin cancer more likely.
Lastly, accumulated sun damage is known to age the skin—it’s the number one culprit behind fine lines and wrinkles!
As you can see, the benefits of sun protection simply cannot be denied.
Therefore, the potential but unproven benefits of the sun for acne cannot outweigh the possible risks that sun exposure poses. At the end of the day, it’s certainly better for your skin to be protected from the sun instead.
However, finding the perfect sunscreen can be difficult, especially for those with acne-prone skin. Here are some tips to consider when looking for the best sunscreen:
Look for oil-free and non-comedogenic products
Some sunscreens may contain products such as coconut, beeswax, and cocoa butter which can clog the pores, leading to further breakouts. To avoid this, make sure to stick with oil-free, non-comedogenic sunscreens.
“Non-comedogenic” means that a product doesn’t contain ingredients known to clog pores. This ensures your sunscreen won’t be causing acne breakouts.
Use sunscreens with a fluidy or gel-like texture
Using sunscreen lotions and creams can feel greasy on the skin, especially in the latter parts of the day. Lightweight products, such as sheer lotions, fluids, or gels, can help remedy this problem as they are absorbed more easily into the skin!
Use adequate protection
Make sure that your sunblock is giving you adequate protection. It’s important to block both UVA and UVB rays of the sun to completely protect your skin.
First, make sure to choose a product with SPF30 or higher. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends at least SPF30, as this can block about 97% of the sun’s UVB rays.
However, just SPF isn’t enough. You have to be safe from the sun’s UVA rays, too. Make sure to buy products that do not only contain a high SPF, but are also labeled “broad spectrum”. In Japan, this is labeled “PA+++” or “PA++++”. These ratings mean they provide strong protection against UVA rays.
There are countless myths regarding acne treatments, and it’s important that we evaluate each one. At the end of the day, the best way to get rid of acne is to address its root causes using proven methods, treatments, and medication.
Now that you know that it’s untrue that the sun can clear up acne, and how it can actually be more damaging than you think, we hope you realise how important it is to protect your skin from sunlight rather than expose yourself to it.
Do you agree with the points in this article? Tell us what you think by dropping us a comment below!