While acne can generally be addressed with minimal impact on a person's daily life, there are some side effects that you may not know about. For example, in some cases, acne medication can cause sun sensitivity, increasing one's risk of burning when exposed to ultraviolet (UV) light.

Since everyone gets at least a little bit of sun each day, it's important to understand the risk of increased sun sensitivity if you are currently on or are thinking about starting an acne treatment regimen.

The Basics of Acne

Acne is one of the most common reasons an individual will visit a Dermatologist. The condition affects over 50 million people in the US alone, and contrary to popular belief, it can present itself at any time, not just adolescence. In fact, many women will experience the onset of hormonal acne in their 20s, 30s, 40s, and even 50s.

Acne is a treatable but incurable disease of the skin's oil glands. While there are a number of factors contributing to the condition, all acne starts off as a clogged pore, or comedone. Our body's androgen hormone causes an increase in oil production in the clogged pore where naturally occurring skin bacteria thrive. This infection can lead to inflammatory papules, commonly known as pimples or zits. With some individuals, the pimples can evolve into deep nodules and pustules.

Factors that contribute to or exacerbate acne include a family history of severe acne, hormonal fluctuation, friction, oral steroids, diet, and certain cosmetic ingredients, including cocoa butter, isopropyl myristate, various oils, and others.

Common Acne Treatments and Sun Sensitivity

Treatment depends on the type and severity of the acne, but acne medication will generally be either topical or oral.

Topical Treatments

The most commonly prescribed topical treatments include benzoyl peroxide, topical retinoids, and salicylic acid. These medications are anti-inflammatory and antibacterial. They also help unclog pores by increasing cellular turnover. However, they may increase sun sensitivity because they thin out the superficial layers of the skin. In addition, the reduction in skin oils leaves skin drier and more susceptible to sun damage.

Oral Treatments

Oral medications commonly used for acne include antibiotics, isotretinoin, and spironolactone.

Antibiotics commonly prescribed by Dermatologists include doxycycline and minocycline. While these work well for deeper, inflammatory acne, they often induce sun sensitivity and significantly increase one's risk of getting sunburn. Doxycycline in particular can cause these side effects due to its phototoxic properties. Your Dermatologist can discuss these effects with you in greater depth if you're prescribed this medication.

Isotretinoin, one of the strongest acne medications available, is essentially an oral retinoid that reduces oil production in the skin. Like their topical counterparts, these retinoids also increase cellular turnover, raising patients' risk of sunburn due to thinning of the outermost layer of skin.

Spironolactone is given to women for hormonal acne. While the risk of increased sun sensitivity with this drug is low, sun damage can still occur.

Countering Medication-Induced Sun Sensitivity

UV protection is best for keeping your medicated skin healthy, so forget anything you've heard about sun exposure helping acne troubles. Any sort of tanning or prolonged UV exposure is technically harming your skin, and throwing the medications listed above into the mix can worsen that damage.

Because acne medication and sun exposure can lead to quicker, more severe sunburn, daily sunscreen is a must. Furthermore, sun protection is extremely helpful for limiting post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH), because UV radiation and visible light lead to persistent dark spots in acne-prone individuals. For darker-skinned individuals, this PIH can be even more bothersome and challenging to treat than the acne itself.

For those with oily or acne-prone skin, Dermatologists recommend using sunscreen with a non-comedogenic formulation made specifically for this skin type. Mineral-based formulas with a tint go on smoothly without a heavy, oily feeling, and they protect against all types of light that can cause dyspigmentation. Regardless of personal preference, any sunscreen you wear should be broad-spectrum with SPF 30 or higher.

Although our bodies can have some strange reactions to the medicines we take, you shouldn't let a fear of the side effects deter you from seeking necessary acne treatment. Sunscreen applied every morning—and reapplied as needed—will keep your skin safe as you fight off any skin condition that's giving you trouble.


  • Dr. Jenny Liu (@derm.talk)

    Dr. Jenny Liu is a board-certified Dermatologist and an assistant professor of dermatology at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. Her blog, DermTalkDocs.com, combines her professional and personal passions—dermatology and medicine, medical education, skin care, fashion, and motherhood.