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Why Lupus and Tanning Beds Don’t Mix

Posted on July 18, 2023

“Lupus, tanning beds, and UV rays are not a winning combination,” a MyLupusTeam member wrote. But why not? You may have heard that ultraviolet light can be used to treat skin rashes that come with lupus. However, most types of light make your lupus symptoms worse, not better.

Keep reading to learn the specifics about why lupus and the UV rays from tanning beds don’t mix.

Why Aren’t Tanning Beds Safe for People With Lupus?

Tanning beds are unsafe for anyone, as they can increase your risk of developing skin cancer. But for people living with lupus, exposure to UV rays can cause other symptoms, including:

  • Short-term skin irritations, itching, rashes, and pain
  • Flares of other lupus symptoms in the rest of your body
  • Long-term skin problems
  • Cumulative organ damage caused by lupus flares
  • Worsened photosensitivity (sensitivity to light) caused by some medications used to treat lupus, such as methotrexate and hydroxychloroquine (Plaquenil)

How Do Tanning Beds Make Lupus Worse?

As many as 7 out of every 10 people living with lupus experience photosensitivity — sensitivity to UV rays from the sun or indoor lighting sources such as fluorescent lights or UV nail-drying lamps. For people living with lupus who are photosensitive, exposure to light — particularly sunlight — can make their symptoms worse.

Ultraviolet light is classified into three different types based on its wavelength: UVA, UVB, and UVC. Researchers have shown that UVA2 (a subtype of UVA light) and UVB light worsen skin symptoms in people living with lupus.

UV tanning beds tan your skin using mostly UVA rays, with some UVB rays. The amount and type of UV radiation someone is exposed to from a tanning bed (or booth) depends on the specific lamps used in the bed, how long a person stays in the bed, and how many times the person uses it.

UVA2 and UVB light damage skin cells and the genetic information (DNA) inside them. In people who don’t have lupus, the immune system clears away these damaged cells and heals your skin. The immune systems in people living with lupus don’t always work as well. Consequently, some of these UV-damaged cells hang around for longer, and particular immune cells may recognize them as foreign and target them. This autoimmune attack can result in a lupus flare-up, which can include the development of skin symptoms — as well as symptoms affecting your joints, muscles, and other organs.

Because there’s such variation among types of tanning beds and the UV light they emit, health care providers say that there is no safe level of UV exposure from a tanning bed for people with lupus — it’s just too risky, according to Lupus Foundation of America.

How Do Tanning Beds Affect the Skin?

Besides the obvious risk of sunburn or skin discoloration, a visit to the local tanning salon could cause someone with lupus to develop other symptoms, such as:

  • Itching, often in the form of hives
  • Discoloration
  • Hair loss
  • Scarring
  • Skin sensations like pain, tingling, or burning
  • The classic lupus malar rash (“butterfly rash”) across the face
  • Various types of rashes — Rashes that follow exposure to UV lights aren’t always limited to the area of exposure, although they may be more severe there.

Sun exposure can cause symptoms in people with both cutaneous lupus erythematosus (CLE, lupus that affects the skin) and systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), the most common type of lupus that affects organs and tissues throughout the body. Symptoms differ from person to person depending on which type of lupus they have.

There’s little to no research as to how using tanning beds affects people with lupus. However, a 2013 study found that sunlight exposure could trigger more than one type of reaction in people living with lupus — including skin symptoms and other types, like headache and fatigue. The study also found that, while some people developed symptoms immediately after sun exposure, others had reactions days and even weeks after their initial sun exposure.

Other Lupus Symptoms Triggered by Using a Tanning Bed

As noted, symptoms of UV exposure aren’t only skin-related. As one MyLupusTeam member described after a visit to the tanning bed: “I had two sessions and came out in red dots everywhere and started to feel sick.”

UV exposure generally can result in:

  • Joint pain
  • Fatigue
  • Fever
  • Flu-like symptoms
  • Skin tingling or numbness
  • Swelling in other organs such as your kidneys

Can People Taking Hydroxychloroquine Safely Use Tanning Beds?

Some MyLupusTeam members wonder if it’s safe for people taking hydroxychloroquine to use tanning beds. The answer is no. According to the Lupus Foundation of America, tanning beds are not safe for anyone with lupus, no matter which medications they take.

Hydroxychloroquine can also cause side effects that may overlap with the side effects of using a tanning bed. These include hives, rashes, and skin blisters.

Notably, hydroxychloroquine is sometimes used to treat photosensitivity — but in some people, it can cause photosensitivity. Scientists believe genetics play a role in how a person will respond to the medication.

Can UV Lights at Nail Salons Damage Skin?

Yes. Think of those nail-drying light machines as mini-tanning booths for your hands. One MyLupusTeam member reported that after getting their nails done, their “nail beds are very sensitive and the cuticle area constantly aches.”

Another reported an immediate pain in their fingers and nails after putting them under UV lights, “almost like they were on fire and stinging.”

UV light exposure while using nail-drying equipment can make lupus symptoms worse, especially for those with CLE. Dermatologists and rheumatologists suggest these tips to keep safe during nail salon visits for people living with lupus:

  • Avoid UV nail-drying lamps.
  • Opt for standard nail polish or “dip polishes” and dry with air fans.
  • Try adhesive, patterned nail “stickers” or press-on nails.
  • Apply 100 SPF sunscreen and/or wear sun-protective gloves with the nail bed area cut out.

Tips for Limiting Your UV Exposure

Some people think incorrectly that using a tanning bed instead of sunbathing will lower their chance of sunburn or photosensitivity.

Using a tanning bed is not safe for people with lupus, no matter how low the settings are or how little time you spend in one. Instead of using a tanning bed, try some of the following ideas to avoid UV exposure and manage lupus photosensitivity:

  • Apply sunscreen on a daily basis that’s at least 70 SPF and that blocks both UVA and UVB rays.
  • Use accessories to reduce exposure to the sun, such as a wide-brimmed hat, sunglasses, or an umbrella.
  • Avoid being outside during the day when the sun is the strongest (commonly between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.).
  • Choose dark or brightly colored, tightly woven clothing for the best protection against the sun’s rays. Remember, most clothing only provides the equivalent of SPF 5 sunblock.
  • Consider tinting your car windows if you spend lots of daylight hours in the car — some state laws may require a doctor’s note for window tinting.
  • Be especially careful if you are out on the water in a boat, sitting on the beach, or outdoors in the snow — water, ice, snow, concrete, and even sand can reflect UV rays back onto you.
  • Try self-tanning creams (not sunless tanning pills or accelerators) if you want a sun-bronzed look. Look for sunless tanning lotions and creams approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), or check with your dermatologist or rheumatologist to see whether they can recommend nonirritating products.

One beach-loving MyLupusTeam member shared that avoiding the sun has been especially difficult. "I love the beach. But a day at the beach wreaks havoc with my body. It’s just not worth it," they wrote.

Connect With Others

MyLupusTeam is the social network for people with lupus and their loved ones. On MyLupusTeam, more than 223,000 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with lupus.

Have you ever wondered if tanning beds are safe? Or have you tried a tanning bed? Share your experience in the comments below, or start a conversation by posting on your Activities page.

    Posted on July 18, 2023
    All updates must be accompanied by text or a picture.

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    Prakruthi Jaladhar, M.D., DNB completed her medical education at Mysore Medical College, followed by an internal medicine residency at Kempegowda Institute of Medical Sciences (KIMS) in Bangalore. Learn more about her here
    Amy Harris, MS, RN, CNM is a certified nurse midwife and trained health literacy specialist.. Learn more about her here

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