Rosacea and the Sun

Those punishing summer heat waves can leave you feeling hot and bothered (literally).

by Sarah Ellis Health Writer

This summer is going to look different from last year, mostly in a good way. We’re ready to spend a little extra time outside, with friends and family, and indulging in honest-to-goodness fun (remember that?). How do we do it safely? Your guide to a healthy, happy summer starts here.

Every year, I regard the beginning of summer with equal parts excitement and dread. The hot months are my favorite part of the year, no question—I love the long daylight hours, the endless potential for outdoor activities, and the way life just feels more relaxed. It’s like a giant exhale after a cold, gray winter and rainy spring.

What I don’t love is how the summer heat and sunshine can trigger my rosacea. This pesky skin condition is super noticeable to the naked eye because it turns your face… well, red. “The first signs of this chronic condition are often characterized by redness with a tendency to easily flush, typically affecting the central face (forehead, cheeks, nose, and chin) symmetrically,” explains Paul Friedman, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist and director of the Dermatology & Laser Surgery Center in Houston, TX. Rosacea looks slightly different on everyone, and it can easily be mistaken for normal facial redness or even acne. But it’s actually a distinct condition on its own.

How Heat and Sun Exposure Affect Rosacea

There’s no single known cause of rosacea, and everyone’s triggers are somewhat unique. It is thought to be caused by some combination of genetics, immune dysfunction, the gut microbiome, and a mite called demodex that lives on the skin (yes, you have microscopic bugs on your face—everyone does!). These factors can cause the blood vessels to dilate, resulting in that characteristic pink flush. And since there are several different subtypes of rosacea, it’s possible that each one has a different root cause.

Heat and sun exposure are two of the most common rosacea triggers. “Sunlight exposure has been shown by researchers to lead to production of vascular endothelial growth factors, a substance linked to the development of visible blood vessels,” Dr. Friedman explains. (Translation: Sun exposure can prompt the growth of new blood vessels.) He notes that current research is focusing on the effects of UV radiation on skin inflammation.

Experts still have a lot to learn, but here’s what we know for sure: People with rosacea often find their symptoms get worse when they spend time in the sun, especially when exerting physical energy. That explains why my outdoor summer runs always leave me with a hot, red face for hours afterward—even when I’m super-hydrated.

Here’s a more comprehensive list of common rosacea triggers:

  • Warm environments

  • Exercise

  • Spicy foods

  • Foods that are high in histamine, like cured meats and aged cheeses

  • Alcohol

  • Hot drinks such as coffee or tea

  • Stress or anxiety

  • Certain cosmetics, hair products, and other chemical substances

What Does a Rosacea Flare Feel Like?

A rosacea flare is more than just a cosmetic inconvenience. “The flare can manifest initially as redness, accompanied by itching or burning sensations,” says Anne Chang, M.D., a professor of dermatology at Stanford Medicine in Redwood City, CA. It can also impact your quality of life. “People may have been previously OK, but now that they have rosacea, they can’t go out in the sun as much or do as many of the activities as they would normally want to do” because of discomfort, Dr. Chang explains.

If you’re anything like me, you might never have considered that rosacea could be the cause of your skin struggles. It wasn’t until last year, after several years of dealing with facial redness when I would work out, drink red wine, or eat spicy food (three of my favorite things), that I learned from a dermatologist that my symptoms weren’t just “normal” skin reactions. And that there was a way to clear up my skin, along with certain triggers to avoid when possible. “Some patients don’t have symptoms that bother them, or having rosacea isn’t something they are concerned about,” Dr. Chang notes. “But generally, seeing a dermatologist is good because there are so many different possible treatment options.”

Rosacea Management and Treatment

What’s the toughest part of living with rosacea? “It will get worse over time if untreated,” says Leslie Baumann M.D., board certified dermatologist at Baumann Cosmetic and Research Institute in Miami. There’s no cure for this condition, meaning you’ll have to manage it throughout your life. I know, it’s a bummer.

It’s also impossible to avoid your triggers entirely—we all need sunlight to survive. “It can be a lot of work requiring constant vigilance to avoid your triggers because the trigger, if it is the sun, is everywhere,” Dr. Chang says. But you can minimize your contact with damaging sun exposure, which will go a long way toward keeping your skin cool, calm, and collected.

Expert-approved tips for minimizing rosacea flares include:

  • Exercise early in the morning or in the evening when the sun isn’t quite so intense.

  • Always, always, always use sunscreen! 30+ SPF is ideal. And try to avoid chemical sunscreens, as these contain harsh ingredients that can aggravate rosacea-prone skin.

  • Wear a hat to cover your face when the sun is at its peak.

  • Bring ice water to stay hydrated, along with cool, damp towels to use right after a workout.

  • Don’t use exfoliating scrubs on your face or scrubbing products to remove sunscreen or makeup. A gentle touch goes a long way.

Of course, it’s also a great idea to see a dermatologist if you have access to that option. Prescription rosacea treatments include topical creams, antibiotics, anti-inflammatories, laser therapy, or retinoids. (Just FYI—Dr. Baumann notes that retinoids should only be used under the guidance of a dermatologist since they can be harsh on the skin.) It might take a few months to see a difference in your symptoms. “A lot of it depends on trial and error, so which topicals might work for you can be hard to predict,” Dr. Chang says. “Be patient in waiting for a new regimen to take effect.”

In my case, seeing a dermatologist has helped a lot, along with simple steps like applying sunscreen to my face every morning. And since I really don’t want to quit running this summer, I might have to stop sleeping through my early morning alarm. Consider this my official request to keep me accountable.

Sarah Ellis
Meet Our Writer
Sarah Ellis

Sarah Ellis is a wellness and culture writer who covers everything from contraceptive access to chronic health conditions to fitness trends. She is originally from Nashville, Tennessee and currently resides in NYC. She has written for Elite Daily, Greatist, mindbodygreen and others. When she’s not writing, Sarah loves distance running, vegan food, and getting the most out of her library card.