Will laying in the sun make my acne go away?

Stan Megraw
23 January 2012

Above: Image © Carla Nunziata, Wikimedia Commons

John, Grade 9 - Lexington, Michigan

"... [Pimples Carson's] cheeks were rivulated and rotted and eroded with acne. Among the old scars new pustules formed, purple and red, some rising and some waning." - John Steinbeck - The Wayward Bus (1947)

Ok. That sounds really gross. But unlike Steinbeck's 17-year old fictional character, Pimples Carson, most cases of acne are relatively minor.

But no matter how mild, when acne develops we immediately go on the offensive. And more often than not we look for "quick fixes"... creams, antiseptics, makeup, etc.

If you think spending time in the sun is one way to help your acne, you're not alone.

Did you know? A survey of teens by the American Counseling Association (ACA) found about half believed sun exposure improves their acne; a quarter felt it to be one of the most effective treatments. Before addressing this question further, let's briefly review some key symptoms of acne (for more information, see the Home-work section on anti-acne face washes).

Acne Symptoms

Acne forms when the pores of the skin become clogged with oil (sebum), dead skin cells and bacteria. The two main types of acne are non-inflammatory (whiteheads, blackheads) and inflammatory (pimples, cysts).

Did you know? About 85% of the population between the ages of 12 and 24 years old experience acne. For teens, it affects almost 100% of males and 85% of females. Whiteheads and blackheads are considered to be mild forms of acne. A moderate infection occurs when small, red pimples (or pustules) with whiteheads are produced. In severe cases, cysts also form under the skin, which could lead to scarring.

Tanning Fights Acne - Fact or Fiction?

From Steinbeck's vivid description, it's obvious that Pimples Carson's acne was severe. If Pimples was a participant in the ACA survey, it is unlikely he would have thought the sun could be of much help in clearing up his condition.

But what if Pimples was experiencing a mild/moderate form of acne?

As with many other teens (and adults), he may have felt that tanning made his acne look better... and he would be right. But if he also believed the sun was an effective treatment for his acne, he would have been wrong.

Huh?

What I'm saying is that Pimples was fooled into thinking that an improvement in his acne meant that the sun is therapeutic (healing). Adding to the misunderstanding is that there have been too few scientific studies to conclusively support or disprove the beneficial effects of sunlight on acne.

Nevertheless, there is sufficient common-sense evidence available to realize that the perception (i.e. sun heals) does not fit the reality (i.e. sun doesn't heal). Moreover, it is important to recognize that a strict adherence to tanning as an acne cure can give rise to potential health risks.

Perception vs Reality

A tan (or worse, a burn) will give the appearance of an improvement in blemishes when, in reality, it is only camouflaging the condition.

Did you know? Tanning (and burning) masks the redness associated with acne so it is not as noticeable. If there is also swelling from over-exposure to the sun, acne scars will seem to "disappear". Any perceived "improvement" in acne from tanning is temporary.

Did you know? Prolonged sun exposure can promote the production of oils and flaking of the skin. The excess oils and dead skin cells will plug the pores, leading to more breakouts later on.

Health Risks

The sun emits electromagnetic radiation of different wavelengths in the form of heat (infrared radiation, >700 nm) and light (visible radiation, 400-700 nm) that we can sense. But it's the risk from the "silent" rays that are of concern; namely ultraviolet (UV) radiation.

UVA radiation (320-400 nm) penetrates deep into the skin, breaks down its collagen and elastin and is responsible for wrinkling, leathery skin and age spots. UVB radiation (290-320 nm) affects the surface of the skin and causes sunburns. Exposure to UVB radiation can lead to melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancer.

Final Word

Now I'm not suggesting you avoid the sun completely. In fact, because acne can be stress-induced, fun and play in the sun may actually be beneficial by helping you to relax.

If you have (or are susceptible to) acne and enjoy being outdoors, I would like to leave you with the following to help minimize the sun's harmful effects.

Some Tanning Tips For The Acne-Prone and Down-South Winter Travelers:

  1. Always use a sunscreen with a minimum sun protection factor (SPF) of 15.
  2. Avoid sunscreens with an oily or greasy feel, which can aggravate acne. Instead, use an oil-free or alcohol-based product.
  3. Wash sunscreen off periodically, and reapply as necessary.
  4. Be aware that some common acne medications, like tetracycline and retinoids, can make you more sensitive to serious sunburns. Consult your doctor.

Learn More

  • Acne Myths Exposed — The truth about sunshine.
  • Teens Think Sun Will Solve Acne Problems, But Cancer Risk is Increased. Click Here
  • Teens Erroneously Believe Sun Treats Acne. Click Here
  • Kerkemeyer, K. 2005. Acne Vulgaris. Plastic Surgical Nursing 25(1):31-35.
  • Magan, P., D. Pond, W. Smith, and A. Watson. 2005. A systematic review of the evidence for 'myths and misconceptions' in acne management: diet, face-washing and sunlight. Family Practice 22(1):62-70
  • Rodan, K., and K. Fields. 1999. Dispelling common myths about acne. Skin & Aging. September 1999. 56-60.
  • Scheck, A. 2000. Teens forsake sunscreen, believe rays help. Dermatolgy Times. 21:S34
  • Steinbeck, J. 1947. The Wayward Bus. The Viking Press. New York.
  • Van de Kerkhop, P.C.M, M.M. Kleinpenning, E.M.G. de Jong, M-J. P. Gerritsen, R.J. van Dooren-Greebe, and H.A.C. Alkemade. 2006. Current and future treatment options for acne. J. Dermatological Treatment, 17:198-204.

Stan Megraw

Stan is a writer/researcher, a PhD graduate of McGill University and was a member of the CurioCity team for several years. As a kid he dreamed of playing hockey in the NHL then becoming an astronaut with NASA. Instead, he ended up as an environmental research scientist. In his spare time Stan enjoys working on DIY projects, cooking and exploring his Irish roots.


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