What It's Really Like To Be Allergic To The Sun

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When people talk about my skin, they tend to throw around words like “porcelain,” “pasty,” “vampire” or “whitest white girl I know.” There is a shade of foundation called Alabaster that matches my complexion only after I get a spray tan. I sunburn on a dime — so I have packed, not one, but three bottles of SPF 100 for tropical vacations. Basically, I’m pale AF — but what’s even crazier is that I’m allergic to the sun.
I first discovered this fact back in 2003. Mystic Tans were all the rage, so I stuck out like a sore thumb in the image-obsessed world of my Los Angeles university. One summer day, I went to the beach for a couple hours in the late afternoon, hoping to get some colour. Instead, I got a slight burn on my stomach and chest. It seemed minor and didn’t hurt, that is, until the next morning.
I woke up feeling as if I had gone to sleep on a bed of poison ivy, wearing wool pyjamas, during mosquito season. The sunburned parts of my skin were unbearably itchy and hot, and covered in an unsightly rash. I went to work, but after an hour of pawing at myself and making everyone around my cubicle uncomfortable, I said I was sick and bolted.
I spent the rest of the day marinating in an oatmeal bath — the only thing that could even slightly soothe my skin. There have been just a few times in my life when I have felt such intense discomfort and pain. The aftermath of my sunburn was almost as miserable as when I got stuck in L.A. rush hour traffic with a UTI and a bladder full of Smartwater.
I decided to stay out of the sun, but it turns out my affliction wasn't just caused by Earth's closest star. About a year later, because bad decisions were the only kind I made in that period of my life, I went to a tanning salon to get bronzed before my sorority’s spring formal. Sure enough, 12 minutes in a tanning bed led to a sleepless night standing in a cold dorm shower.
Sun allergy is a layman’s term for the clinical condition Polymorphous Light Eruption (PMLE). But how is this even possible? How can I be allergic to something so basic for survival? "Some [people] are prone to getting [PMLE] whenever they go in the sun for the first time that summer, or if they get a lot of sun on vacation and they haven’t had sun in awhile,” says board-certified dermatologist Elizabeth Tanzi, MD, founder and director of Capital Laser & Skin Care.
The good news is that, unlike a lot of allergies, sun allergies usually don’t get worse with continued exposure. “PMLE gets milder as the [summer] season goes on because the skin gets ‘hardened’ to the sun,” Dr. Tanzi explains. Getting sun exposure in small doses at the start of the warmer seasons can also help sufferers avoid a bad reaction.
The bad news? There is a wide spectrum of PMLE severity, meaning some people experience allergic reactions constantly, and never build a tolerance to extended sun exposure. Dr. Tanzi says over-the-counter cortisone creams can be used to treat PMLE. Sadly, in my experience, the relief has been limited.
For the remainder of my 20s, my fear of the summer sun kept me indoors most of the season, isolating me from my outdoor-loving friends. Sunshine makes most people happy, but it reminds me of being lonely and bored, and of sneaking my dog into the movies so I wouldn’t have to go by myself. (Okay, that only happened once.)
After 10 years more or less in hiding, I asked Dr. Tanzi if making some tweaks to my skin-care regimen would cut my risk. More frequent sunscreen application? Nope. “Sunscreen isn’t enough to prevent the reaction,” she says. Topical antioxidants? Not yet. “Sun-protective clothing is much better,” Dr. Tanzi suggests. Covering up would work just fine — if summers in my city didn’t feel like living inside of a teenage boy’s armpit. Back to Plan A: #hermitlifestyle.
Truth be told, I’m used to it. I’ve grown to love staying up, sleeping in, binge-watching Netflix, taking lingering baths — I’ve gone full vampire, and I like it. My new boyfriend likes it, too. I was prepared to spend another summer hitting matinees with my poodle until we met. We cook, play video games, hit the gym, hang out at friends’ houses, and walk the dog to the ice cream shop across the street for an evening pint — no sunshine required.

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