Drug-induced cutaneous photosensitivity: incidence, mechanism, prevention and management

Drug Saf. 2002;25(5):345-72. doi: 10.2165/00002018-200225050-00004.


The interaction of sunlight with drug medication leads to photosensitivity responses in susceptible patients, and has the potential to increase the incidence of skin cancer. Adverse photosensitivity responses to drugs occur predominantly as a phototoxic reaction which is more immediate than photoallergy, and can be reversed by withdrawal or substitution of the drug. The bias and inaccuracy of the reporting procedure for these adverse reactions is a consequence of the difficulty in distinguishing between sunburn and a mild drug photosensitivity reaction, together with the patient being able to control the incidence by taking protective action. The drug classes that currently are eliciting a high level of adverse photosensitivity are the diuretic, antibacterial and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). Photosensitising chemicals usually have a low molecular weight (200 to 500 Daltons) and are planar, tricyclic, or polycyclic configurations, often with heteroatoms in their structures enabling resonance stabilisation. All absorb ultraviolet (UV) and/or visible radiation, a characteristic that is essential for the chemical to be regarded as a photosensitiser. The photochemical and photobiological mechanisms underlying the adverse reactions caused by the more photoactive drugs are mainly free radical in nature, but reactive oxygen species are also involved. Drugs that contain chlorine substituents in their chemical structure, such as hydrochlorthiazide, furosemide and chlorpromazine, exhibit photochemical activity that is traced to the UV-induced dissociation of the chlorine substituent leading to free radical reactions with lipids, proteins and DNA. The photochemical mechanisms for the NSAIDs that contain the 2-aryl propionic acid group involve decarboxylation as the primary step, with subsequent free radical activity. In aerated systems, the reactive excited singlet form of oxygen is produced with high efficiency. This form of oxygen is highly reactive towards lipids and proteins. NSAIDs without the 2-arylpropionic acid group are also photoactive, but with differing mechanisms leading to a less severe biological outcome. In the antibacterial drug class, the tetracyclines, fluoroquinolones and sulfonamides are the most photoactive. Photocontact dermatitis due to topically applied agents interacting with sunlight has been reported for some sunscreen and cosmetic ingredients, as well as local anaesthetic and anti-acne agents. Prevention of photosensitivity involves adequate protection from the sun with clothing and sunscreens. In concert with the preponderance of free radical mechanisms involving the photosensitising drugs, some recent studies suggest that diet supplementation with antioxidants may be beneficial in increasing the minimum erythemal UV radiation dose.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Anti-Bacterial Agents / adverse effects*
  • Anti-Inflammatory Agents, Non-Steroidal / adverse effects*
  • Antioxidants / therapeutic use
  • Diuretics / adverse effects*
  • Humans
  • Photosensitivity Disorders / chemically induced*
  • Photosensitivity Disorders / drug therapy
  • Photosensitivity Disorders / prevention & control*
  • Skin / drug effects*
  • Skin / radiation effects*
  • Sunscreening Agents / administration & dosage
  • Ultraviolet Rays


  • Anti-Bacterial Agents
  • Anti-Inflammatory Agents, Non-Steroidal
  • Antioxidants
  • Diuretics
  • Sunscreening Agents