If you get whiteheads, blackheads or any other form of acne, you’ve probably heard someone recommend spending more time in the sun.
At first, it can seem like good advice. Spending time enjoying the sun tends to dry out your skin, making the sebum that can produce acne less of a problem. Plus, a more even tan could make acne less visible, helping to improve your appearance.
Like a lot of advice that appears good at first but falls apart once you start to dig into the details, the idea that spending time in the sun can help you get rid of acne isn’t true.
In fact, it’s a common acne myth that’s been holding back people with acne (and causing plenty of sunburn) for decades. Worse yet, spending too much time in the sun could even make your acne worse than it already is.
Below, we’ve dug into the details behind this acne myth to explain why spending time in the sun generally isn’t a good way to treat your acne. We’ve also listed some real, science-backed acne treatment that you can use if you’re prone to acne breakouts.
Like most skincare myths, the idea that sun exposure helps to get rid of acne lesions is based on an incomplete understanding of how the sun actually affects your body.
Your skin isn’t just there to hold your organs in. It’s also a powerful barrier that works to protect you from the environment. Part of this job is retaining moisture, which your skin does through a combination of waxy lipid molecules called Ceramides and amino acids.
When you spend more than a few minutes in strong, direct sunlight, your skin is exposed to a huge amount of UV radiation. This UV radiation damages your skin, causing it to shed oil and water in response to the damage.
The end result is skin that looks drier and less oily than normal—usually, a look that’s good for treating acne. Whiteheads, blackheads, lesions and other forms of acne that usually look large, red and obvious can temporarily fade while your skin is in this state.
This can create the illusion that sunlight is healing your acne—perhaps the root cause of this common myth.
However, the type of dryness produced by UV damage isn’t the same as the drying effect skin medications like tretinoin can have on acne-prone areas. Instead of drying out your skin via a faster skin cell turnover cycle, UV-damaged skin looks dry because it’s been zapped of oil.
This means your body quickly compensates by increasing its own oil production, releasing more oil from your sebaceous glands onto areas of sun-damaged skin. The end result is skin that has more oil than before, as well as a higher chance of breaking out with acne.
As we explained in our guide to hormonal acne, your body’s production of sebum (a type of oil that’s produced naturally by the body) is one of the top causes of acne. More oil equals a much higher chance of breakouts, especially if you’re already prone to acne.
In a 2003 study, researchers found that the number of sebocytes—the cells that release oil onto your skin from your sebaceous glands—increases by 120% to 140% within four days of spending time in direct sunlight.
In short, while sunlight might make your acne look better in the short term, the UV damage you’ll get from spending time out in the sun will normally just make your acne worse.
It’ll also damage your skin cells, giving you anything from some mild redness to a deep, painful sunburn. Add an increased risk of skin cancer, deeper wrinkles and other nasty effects into the equation and it’s generally best to avoid too much sun exposure, even if you don’t have acne.
While sunlight won’t do anything to fix your acne (and could make it worse), there are several options available if you want to clear up your skin and remove acne lesions.
One of the most effective is tretinoin, a topical retinoid that speeds up your skin cell turnover cycle. This prevents most blocked pores, meaning you’ll notice fewer acne lesions and have smoother, healthier skin.
Another option is clindamycin. An antibiotic, clindamycin is used alongside tretinoin to remove the bacteria that can cause blocked pores to become inflamed, infected and cystic.
Finally, birth control pills that use a combination of estrogen and a progestin can work wonders as acne treatments. Doctors typically prescribe birth control to treat hormonal acne, which can be triggered by unusually high levels of androgens and their effects on sebum production.
Unlike sunlight, all of these treatments are backed up by real science. Most produce results in two to three months, although you’ll usually need to wait for six months or one year to see your final results from treatments like tretinoin and hormonal birth control.
Want to get rid of acne for good? While there are hundreds of myths and unproven treatments out there for acne, there are also real, working treatments that can help you remove acne and keep it away for good.
Our guides to hormonal acne and cystic acne go into detail on how acne develops, as well as the most effective treatments for these two common types of acne.