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Is Sunlight a Cure for Acne?

We Americans have a cultural affinity for that great bronze color you get from regular sun.

That affinity persists despite two decades of warnings about the damage that sun and UV rays can do to your skin. 

When people head out into the sun, they notice some immediate benefits. The warm glow and change in skin tone are the obvious ones, but if you have acne you may also notice that your pimples seem to diminish when you’ve spent time outdoors in the sun, leading you — and many others — to believe that the sun can help cure your acne. 

Does sunlight really cure acne? In a word: No.

The Sun’s Effect on Pimples

The sun does not cure acne, but you may notice an initial improvement in how your skin appears, particularly if your acne is caused by bacteria. This isn’t the case for everyone, and some people don’t notice any change at all in their condition.

The Critters Living on Your Skin

There’s a whole world living right on the surface of your skin. Your epidermis and dermis naturally contain a microbiome of bacteria, viruses, mites and fungi...and they help keep you healthy. One square centimeter of your skin hosts approximately 1 million bacteria.

Propionibacterium acnes (p. acnes) is a resident bacteria species on the surface of your facial skin. Too much of the tiny microbe creates not-so-tiny pimples, though when and how this occurs is not entirely clear. When P. acnes is exposed to sunlight, it doesn’t fare so well; however, to completely kill the bacteria, you need high doses of UV radiation.

When P. acnes is exposed to light in the blue spectrum, it likewise doesn’t survive. However, blue light waves aren’t the ones that do damage to your skin, so many people try blue light therapy, which doesn’t involve spending long hours under intense sunlight without sunscreen.

The Pimples Popping Out After Sun Exposure

While some people claim that exposure to sunlight helps their acne, others have the opposite response. When they spend time outdoors with the sun beating down on their faces, they break out. Usually, it isn’t the sun itself that causes a breakout. The culprit could be the sunscreen that they’ve (smartly) slathered on. If the product clogs pores, and the skin isn’t cleansed well after, it can lead to a breakout. Likewise, if the person is taking on a sunscreen that the skin doesn’t like, it’ll show its irritation with angry bumps or inflammation that can contribute to the formation of acne.

The Reality of Using Sunlight To Cure Acne

Often, what really happens to people who see an improvement in their acne after spending time outside is that their skin tone changes. The red or darker skin coloration disguises the redness of pimples, making them much less obvious.

So, does sunlight really cure acne? It doesn’t cure it, but it can temporarily lessen the appearance of pimples, either through reducing the bacteria that cause some forms of acne or by providing camouflage for the red bumps. However, the potential short-term benefits don’t outweigh the long-term risks of sun exposure.

The Impacts of UV Light on Skin

It wasn’t many decades ago that people slathered on baby oil before heading poolside or to the beach. The more bronze the skin, the more beautiful and healthier you appeared. 

The link between UV rays and cancer was not well known or understood.

Now, science and — generally — the public know that you should protect your skin from getting too much exposure to sunlight. Sun exposure isn’t all bad. In fact, it’s necessary for good health. Understanding the benefits of soaking up a bit of sun and the detriments of absorbing too many UV rays can help you maintain healthy skin.

The Good Side of Sun Exposure

Sunlight helps you maintain energy and has a strong impact on your mood. When you go long periods without getting some natural light, it can lead to depression. Sunlight increases serotonin production, and serotonin moderates your mood. Higher levels of serotonin give you an overall sense of well-being, while lower levels cause you to feel sad and depressed. When sunlight hits your retina, it triggers the production of serotonin, but research now indicates that the skin may also produce serotonin. It’s no wonder “walking on sunshine” makes you feel good.

Vitamin D is a critical nutrient for good health. Without it, you can’t absorb calcium. Your immune system, nerves and muscles also rely on vitamin D for proper functioning. Stepping out into the sunlight is one way to get this vital nutrient naturally. When your skin absorbs the sun’s rays, it signals the body to make vitamin D. You don’t need much sun exposure to get your required dose of vitamin D, and you can likely still get enough when you slather on good sunscreen.

The Bad Side of Sun Exposure

Spending too much time out in the sun without protection is detrimental to your health. The sun’s UVA and UVB rays are both damaging to your cells and DNA. The UVA rays impact the epidermis, while the UVB rays strike deeper. Though your skin has properties that can heal and restore some damage, its ability to do so diminishes over time. With continued exposure, your skin ages more rapidly, losing its elasticity, becoming rougher in texture, and developing fine lines and wrinkles. You are also at risk for developing skin cancer, the most prevalent form of cancer in the United States.

In fact, five sun burns can double your risk of skin cancer according to the Skin Cancer Foundation!

The Better Way To Go

Does sunlight really cure acne? No, and the risks of too much unprotected exposure don’t outweigh any potential benefits.

Dermatologist and Nava MD advisor Dr. Liliana Garcia-Ramirez agrees: “Protecting your skin from UV damage is one of the best ways to maintain a youthful look. A gentle moisturizer with SPF daily can do wonders at preventing wrinkles and so much more. If acne is a concern, you just need the right protectant and possibly a good dermatologist-recommended treatment.”

If you have acne, Nava MD’s professionals can help. We provide fast, streamlined telehealth services, allowing you to receive prescription treatments from the comfort of home and at great prices. It's easy, too.

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This article is intended for informational purposes only and should not be considered medical advice.
Consult a healthcare professional or call a doctor in the case of a medical emergency