Can antibiotics and sun exposure be safely mixed? While a very common medication, antibiotics are known to have a number of side effects. You may have heard that one of those side effects involves a sun sensitivity that can develop in otherwise healthy patients. Dermatologists often get questions about this when they prescribe their patients antibiotics for skin infections and acne.

Here is what you need to know about antibiotics and sunlight, particularly with regard to those prescribed for skin conditions.

Antibiotics Can Be Sun-Sensitizing

Some antibiotics, but by no means all, are sun-sensitizing. This means that they make your skin more sensitive to sunlight and sun exposure.

As the antibiotic travels through your body to improve your acne or cure whatever infection you might have, it also interacts with the ultraviolet rays of the sun, creating what Dermatologists call a "photoxic reaction," or burn reaction in the skin. Some people, particularly those with the whitest skin, are more susceptible than others to this effect, and their skin becomes sunburned more quickly and easily in full or partial sunlight.

Sunburns, which cause pain, peeling, premature aging, and possibly even skin cancer, are surely something to avoid.

The Type of Antibiotic Does Matter

There are many types of antibiotics, and although they all serve essentially the same purpose—to kill bacteria within the body—different varieties may be used depending on the exact nature of the infection. As follows, the way each type affects your skin's reaction to light can vary.

Sun-Sensitizing Antibiotics

The most common Dermatologist-prescribed antibiotics that raise the risk of burning in the sun are sulfa antibiotics (full name, trimethoprim-sulfamethoxazole) ciprofloxacin, tetracycline, and doxycycline. Any of these can be used for skin infections, and the one you might be prescribed will depend on what type of skin bacteria it is intended to fight.

If you are using any of these, you need to be careful outside (and inside, too) both while you are taking them and a few weeks after you finish them, as some of the effects may linger even after you've completed your prescription.

This might sound like a big change, especially if you're frequently outdoors. Although such drugs will require heightened awareness and adjusted behavior for a time, the good part is that these antibiotics—when used to resolve most skin infections—are usually taken for just 10 days or less.

Doxycycline and, to a lesser extent, tetracycline and trimethoprim-sulfamethoxazole are commonly used to treat inflammatory acne. When used for this purpose, these antibiotics are taken over a longer period of time when compared to prescriptions for most other infections. You may need to take these antibiotics for up to three months before seeing significant results. And don't forget: even after you stop, you'll need to be careful with sun exposure for another three weeks.

Non-Sun-Sensitizing Antibiotics in Dermatology

Some antibiotics that do not cause increased sensitivity to sunlight when used to treat skin infections include augmentin, cephalexin, and other antibiotics in the cephalexin family. Your doctor will select the antibiotic that most effectively fights your infection, taking into account a number of factors such as your medical history and any allergies you might have.

Additionally, minocycline, sarecycline, and erythromycin are antibiotics prescribed to treat acne that do not increase your sensitivity to sunlight.

Asking Your Doctor the Right Questions

If you're being prescribed an antibiotic, whether for a skin issue or any other infection, listen carefully to your doctor's advice. They should give you any warnings about sun sensitivity and let you know about any other potential effects of the medication. But if you have any questions at all, do not hesitate to ask. Your doctor, Derm or otherwise, is there to help.

And speak up if you do need to spend a large amount of time outdoors or in the sunlight during the treatment period—for example, if your work requires it. In this situation, they might either let you know that your specific prescription is not sun-sensitizing or offer you a different non-sun-sensitizing antibiotic instead.

Antibiotics and Sun Exposure: Protecting Yourself

How can you protect yourself if you are prescribed an antibiotic that causes sun sensitivity?

First, when you are outdoors, protect yourself with clothing over as much of your body as possible. That means long-sleeves, pants, closed-toed shoes, and a hat if possible. Wear sunglasses too, as much as you can.

This next tip can't be overstated: apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF 30 or higher every day. Be sure to thoroughly coat your head, neck, arms, and hands, as well as any other areas you think might become exposed. This is a habit that everyone, antibiotics or not, should get into, but it becomes especially important when your risk for burning is raised.

Author

  • Dr. Lawrence Green is an award-winning Dermatologist and clinical professor of dermatology at George Washington University School of Medicine. Based in Rockville, MD, he is the author of over 50 publications in peer-reviewed journals and a member of the Board of Directors of the American Academy of Dermatology.