How to Tell the Difference Between a Sun Allergy and Sun Sensitivity

A sun allergy is rare, but possible.

A true sun allergy—called solar urticaria—is very rare, affecting an estimated 1 percent of Canadians. We’re not talking sunburns here! “Some 10 percent of the world’s population might have a skin reaction when exposed to the sun,” says Dr. Gordon Searles, a dermatologist and president of the Canadian Dermatology Association. These reactions can be broken down into two types: sun allergy and sun sensitivity.

Sun allergy symptoms

“People with a sun allergy will break out in hives when exposed to the sun, in the same way that someone who is allergic to shellfish would break out in hives,” Searles says. (Psst: These home remedies can help relieve hives.) The reaction is very quick. “A couple of minutes after someone [with a sun allergy] goes into the sunlight, they would develop a reaction,” he says. “The number one way to treat it is to avoid the sun.” But unlike some allergies, it is not life-threatening.

Sun sensitivity, on the other hand, is far more common.

It’s characterized by little red itchy bumps or patches of redness like a rash, and the reaction is delayed. It doesn’t happen until later in the day or even the day after sun exposure, and it can look like an exaggerated sunburn, says Searles. While some sun sensitivities can be a side effect of certain medications (for example, some antibiotics cause a sensitivity called photodermatitis), the most common cause, says Searles, is called polymorphous light eruption, which is an internal immune system reaction to sun exposure.

Don’t have a sun allergy? Check out the best mineral sunscreen available in Canada.

This article was originally published in the Summer 2013 issue of Best Health. 

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Originally Published in Best Health Canada