When you suffer from psoriasis, you’ll try just about anything to alleviate the symptoms of this chronic skin condition — especially if your case is severe. It’s no small wonder, then, that the idea of sun or light therapy (also known as phototherapy) as a viable treatment is gaining traction.
But with skin cancer being a major killer among women and men, is this sort of therapy really safe? Considering we’ve heard anecdotes of people relying on tanning beds for treatment, we had our doubts.
To settle any ambiguity, we asked Drs. Gary and Kristina Goldenberg, the husband-and-wife team of New York City’s Goldenberg Dermatology, to weigh in on phototherapy and any potential risks. And suffice it to say, those stories about using tanning beds to treat psoriasis are probably more wishful thinking than reality.
Here’s the 411 on all things phototherapy
SheKnows: For those of us who aren’t familiar with this form of treatment, what does the light therapy process entail?
Goldenbergs: Light therapy uses UV type B to treat various inflammatory skin conditions, including psoriasis. A normal course of treatment is a visit to the office three times per week for three months. While receiving the treatments, patients are exposed to UVB in a light box.
SK: How does light therapy help psoriasis?
G: UV exposure decreases inflammation in the skin by suppressing the skin immune system. This in turn helps conditions in which there is too much inflammation, such as psoriasis.
SK: Are there different types of light therapy?
G: Yes. UVA and UVB are usually utilized and can be broad- or narrow-band. Narrow-band UVB is currently the most commonly used type of light therapy.
SK: Are tanning beds a viable source of light for phototherapy treatment? Don’t they increase the risk of melanoma?
G: No, they aren’t! First of all, they are not calibrated, and different tanning beds may have different strengths of bulbs. If patients get a sunburn, it can make their psoriasis worse. Also, tanning beds are associated with an increased risk of skin cancer — including melanoma. This risk is higher than with the narrow band UVB most dermatologists use.
SK: Do tanning beds emit the same kind of light that you’d get from, say, sitting outside in the sun for 10 minutes?
G: It depends on the bulbs. Most tanning beds emit UVA, UVB and UVC.
SK: Are extra precautions necessary during light therapy to protect skin from damage as well as the threat of skin cancer?
G: Skin that doesn’t have psoriasis should be covered during treatment to decrease the risk of skin cancer.
SK: Does light therapy make you more sensitive to natural sunlight?
G: Not necessarily, but we ask most patients receiving this therapy to limit natural or tanning bed exposure because of increased risk of skin cancer.
SK: Is light therapy alone effective in treating psoriasis, or is it used in combination with other therapies and/or medication?
G: It depends on the severity and type of psoriasis. In some cases, it can be used alone, but in most cases topical creams or systemic medications may be required.
SK: How long does it take to see the effects of light therapy?
G: The usual course of treatment is three months.
As the Goldenbergs are highly sought-after experts in the field of dermatology, they clearly know their stuff. Based on the conversation with them, we can deduce that a) they do consider phototherapy as a viable treatment option for psoriasis in conjunction at times with other therapies, and b) there still seems to be some risk associated with it. If you’re interested in learning more about light/sun therapy to treat your psoriasis, we recommend reaching out to the Goldenbergs or your local dermatologist to discuss the rewards and risks involved.
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