Does the Sun Help or Hurt Acne?

A Bit Helps But Too Much Hurts

Does the Sun Help or Hurt Acne?

Article Summary

Moderate sun exposure may be helpful for achieving adequate vitamin D levels in the body and adequate vitamin D may potentially help with acne to some degree. However, too much sun exposure causes sunburn, which is highly irritating to the skin. Anything that irritates the skin can lead to acne as the skin repairs itself. If you find that you are breaking out "for no apparent reason" consider if you got a sunburn in the week or two prior to the breakout. 

The research: Research looking at how sunlight directly affects acne is limited and contradictory, so we cannot definitively say whether getting some sun directly on acne-prone skin will help. But suffice it to say that getting too much sun is a bad idea

Special Note: To achieve adequate vitamin D levels, if you have light skin, consider getting 10–20 minutes of unprotected sun exposure each sunny day on as large an area of your body as possible; if you have darker skin, aim for 30–60 minutes or more, but be sure not to overdo it and get sunburned.    

The Sun’s Effect on Acne Is Still an Open Question

There is limited and conflicting scientific evidence to support the use of sunlight in treating acne. In fact, partly due to the fact that it is difficult to perform studies on sun exposure, there are no reliable studies that look directly at the effect of sunlight on acne.

For this reason, to get an approximate answer to the question of whether the sun helps or hurts acne we need to look at two other types of studies that can potentially shine light (no pun intended) on this question: 

  1. Studies using artificial light on acne: Because some days are cloudier while other days are sunnier, this makes it hard to control for sun exposure in studies. For this reason, scientists will often instead opt for artificial light sources like sun lamps which can be shone on the skin at exact wavelengths and for exact amounts of time. These studies indicate that some light wavelengths might have a beneficial effect on acne while other studies indicate the opposite.
  2. Studies looking at seasonal variations in acne: There are also several studies that examine seasonal variations in acne, which could show us whether acne tends to improve or worsen in the summer, when people get more sun exposure, but these studies also produce conflicting evidence.

Let's look more closely at these two types of studies one by one, starting with studies using artificial light.

The Effect of Artificial Light on Acne

Studying the effects of sunlight can be fraught with error because depending on cloud cover, latitude, season, and time of day, sun exposure can vary greatly. Therefore, scientists have resorted to artificial light in their experiments, while fully admitting that artificial light may not be directly generalizable to natural sunlight.In other words, we cannot necessarily say that natural sunlight will have the same effects as artificial light, but at least it gives us a clue.

Unfortunately, an analysis of the research, published in the journal Family Practice, points toward conflicting and weak evidence on artificial light and acne, so the jury is very much still out when it comes to the effects of artificial light on acne.1

The Effect of Seasonal Variations on Acne

The sun produces different levels of intensity during different seasons. Would seasonal differences in acne tell us whether the sun helps or hurts with acne, for instance when the sun is highest in the sky in the summer?

Several studies have analyzed seasonal variations in acne severity and have again reached conflicting conclusions, with the majority showing improvement of acne during summer months, but some others pointing toward a worsening of acne in the summer.2-6 Also, many of these studies use self-reported data, which is unreliable. Therefore, due to the conflicting results and less than ideal study methodology, we cannot draw conclusions from them.

Vitamin D and Acne

Vitamin D is an extremely important vitamin for overall health and health of the skin. There is a correlation that shows that people with acne tend to have lower levels of vitamin D in the blood, and there is some evidence that vitamin D can help in the treatment of acne. Since exposure to sunlight is the only way that the body produces vitamin D, it is reasonable to infer that sun exposure might help improve acne for this reason.

Seasonal Sun Exposure
So does sun exposure allow us to achieve adequate vitamin D levels, and thus reduce acne? This is a possibility, but once again, the evidence we have on vitamin D and acne is limited and preliminary, so this branch of research does not get us closer to an answer whether the sun helps or hurts acne.

All we can say from the preliminary studies done so far is that severe acne might go along with vitamin D deficiency and that administering vitamin D might potentially help improve acne.7-9
In other words, getting some sun exposure might indirectly be beneficial for acne if it increases our vitamin D levels.

Expand to read details of studies 

Journal - Dermato-Endocrinology

A 2011 article in Dermato-Endocrinology notes that vitamin D has antimicrobial (anti-bacterial) effects, and that vitamin D deficiency has negative effects on general well-being. The authors state, “Vitamin D and its analogues…are playing an increasing role in the management of [skin conditions such as] atopic dermatitis, psoriasis, vitiligo, acne and rosacea.” The article states also, “Vitamin D constitutes an inexpensive [preventive] option and possibly therapeutic product either by itself or as a synergistic agent to traditional antimicrobial agents.”7

Indian Journal of Dermatology

According to a 2013 study in the Indian Journal of Dermatologysebocytes (skin oil cells) treated in vitro (in the lab) with vitamin D caused these cells to decrease their production of proteins that contribute to inflammation.8

Journal - Dermato-Endocrinology

A small 2014 study in Dermato-Endocrinology compared blood levels of vitamin D in patients with nodulocystic (severe) acne with those of healthy controls. This study declares, “The patients with nodulocystic acne had relatively low serum vitamin D levels compared with the subjects in the control group. The findings from this study suggest that there is a connection between low vitamin D levels and acne.9

How to Get the Right Amount of Vitamin D

Regardless of whether getting sun exposure will allow you to improve your acne, it is important to get the vitamin D you need for your overall health. Vitamin D deficiency is pervasive in modern society due to restricted time in the sun and the use of sunscreens. Therefore, if blood vitamin D levels are low, doctors recommended spending time in the sun However, the amount of sun required varies according to several factors, including:

  • Skin pigmentation (light or dark)
  • Age
  • The amount of exposed skin
  • Latitude
  • Season

Vitamin D Sun Exposure Guide
Because of these variations, the amount of sun exposure a given individual might need varies. For instance, closer to the equator, people need less sun exposure than they would the further they get from the equator. Also, people need far more sun exposure during winter months to achieve the same amount of vitamin D they would get during summer months. Using common sense is often best. Get a little sun when you can, but limit your sun exposure so that you do not get burnt.10-11

Vitamin D (Vitamin D3)

Potential Benefits of Vitamin D on Acne

Light & Laser Treatment for Acne - Does This Give Us Any Clues?

Even given the lack of scientific evidence that sunlight can help acne, there are several existing light-based treatments that operate on the principle that light is beneficial for acne. These treatments, which rely on the antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties of several wavelengths of light, usually are somewhat effective. Whether the sun would offer similar benefits is unknown, but because light and laser therapy do help reduce acne to some degree, it is possible that the sun's rays could do the same.

Three recent studies suggest that light and laser therapy may help with acne by lowering sebum production, killing acne bacteria, and reducing inflammation.12-14

Light-Based Treatments for Acne
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Potential Side of Effects of Sun Exposure

A moderate amount of sun exposure may or may not help acne symptoms. A sunburn, on the other hand, is skin damage and will very likely result in a breakout in the week or two following the sunburn. To decrease the chance of developing acne, avoid sunburn.

Long-term overexposure to sunlight also results in serious side effects such as increased risk of melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancers. In addition, commonly used acne medications, such as tetracycline antibiotics and isotretinoin (Accutane), can cause the skin to become more sensitive to the sun: this increases the risk of sunburn and, subsequently, cancer development.1 Expert Advice: Sunburn

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The Bottom Line

Thus far, research has been unable to positively prove or disprove that sun exposure is effective as an acne treatment. However, there is evidence that there is a correlation between low levels of vitamin D and acne, suggesting that sun exposure could help acne for this reason. Light and laser therapy have also been shown to be at least somewhat effective in reducing acne lesions. However, if you choose to get regular sun exposure, be cautious. Too much sun will cause sunburn, which will bite back with acne in the weeks following the sunburn. And too much sun can also cause skin cancer over the long haul. 

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  1. Magin, P., Pond, D., Smith, W. & Watson, A. A systematic review of the evidence for 'myths and misconceptions' in acne management: diet, face-washing and sunlight. Fam. Pract. 22, 62–70 (2005).
  2. Berg, M. Epidemiological studies of the influence of sunlight on the skin. Photodermatol. 6, 80–84 (1989).
  3. Gfesser, M. & Worret, W. I. Seasonal variations in the severity of acne vulgaris. Int. J. Dermatol. 35, 116–117 (1996).
  4. Sardana, K., Sharma, R. C. & Sarkar, R. Seasonal variation in acne vulgaris--myth or reality. J. Dermatol. 29, 484–488 (2002).
  5. Meyer, K. et al. Evaluation of Seasonal Changes in Facial Skin With and Without Acne. J. Drugs. Dermatol. 14, 593–601 (2015).
  6. Pascoe, V. L. & Kimball, A. B. Seasonal variation of acne and psoriasis: A 3-year study using the Physician Global Assessment severity scale. J. Am. Acad. Dermatol. 73, 523–525 (2015).
  7. Youssef, D. A. et al. Antimicrobial implications of vitamin D. Dermatoendocrinol. 3, 220–229 (2011).
  8. Lee, W. J., Choi, Y. H., Sohn, M. Y., Lee, S. J. & Kim, D. W. Expression of Inflammatory Biomarkers from Cultured Sebocytes was Influenced by Treatment with Vitamin D. Indian J. Dermatol. 58, 327 (2013).
  9. Yildizgoren, M. T. & Togral, A. K. Preliminary evidence for vitamin D deficiency in nodulocystic acne. Dermatoendocrinol. 6, e983687 (2014).
  10. Lucas, R. M., Repacholi, M. H. & McMichael, A. J. Is the current public health message on UV exposure correct? Bull. World Health Organ. 84, 485–491 (2006).
  11. Cancer Council Australia. Risks and benefits of sun exposure: Summary statement. 1–7 (2007).
  12. Rai, R. & Natarajan, K. Laser and light based treatments of acne. Indian J. Dermatol. Venereol. Leprol. 79, 300–309 (2013).
  13. Dai, T. et al. Blue light for infectious diseases: Propionibacterium acnes, Helicobacter pylori, and beyond? Drug Resist. Updat. 15, 223–236 (2012).
  14. Jeong, E. et al. Topical ALA-Photodynamic Therapy for Acne Can Induce Apoptosis of Sebocytes and Down-regulate Their TLR-2 and TLR-4 Expression. Ann. Dermatol. 23, 23–32 (2011).
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