You’re Not Imagining It: You May Burn Easier After Spending So Much Time Inside

No matter where you’re located, there’s a good chance you spent more time indoors this spring and summer than you have in the past. Perhaps it was because of stay-at-home orders, missed vacations, or the like; regardless, this increased indoor time may have a very strange unintended consequence when you do venture outside: You may burn easier when you do return outdoors.

Why? Well, it turns out that for some, skin can have increased sensitivity to the sun if not exposed to its rays for an extended period of time.

“The most common sun allergy is called polymorphous light eruption, or PMLE for short. Sun exposure after a stretch of no sun exposure could increase the risk of PMLE,” explains board-certified dermatologist Hadley King, M.D., who notes it affects approximately 10 to 15% of the U.S. population. “This is an immunologically mediated reaction to the sun that presents as itchy or burning red bumps or blisters or patches on sun-exposed areas of the skin. This is usually seen in the spring and early summer when the skin has not recently been exposed to sun and dissipates later in the season.”

So if you’re someone whose burns actually blister, this may be the reason why. (Burns, we know, appear differently for everyone. Someone with lighter skin may turn red, while those with darker skin may experience itchiness and dryness.)

However, it’s not just those with sun sensitivity. There’s some truth to the idea that a tan can provide slight protection. However, it is so minimal that it really doesn’t add up to much—and therefore shouldn’t be used as an excuse to skip sunscreen.

“According to the U.S. surgeon general, a base tan provides an SPF of only 3 or less. That means that if a person would normally burn after 10 minutes in the sun, an SPF 2 base tan would allow for another 10 minutes in the sun before burning,” says Hadley. “This is meaningless when it comes to protecting the skin. Remember that there’s no such thing as a healthy tan: Tanning is a defense mechanism that kicks in when the DNA of skin cells is getting damaged.”

The lesson here? Slather on SPF before heading outdoors, no matter what.

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