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Sun Exposure and Skin Microbiota : Effects, Risks, and Insights

Ultraviolet Radiation’s Influence on Skin Microbiota 0 A Complex Interplay

The human skin is a dynamic ecosystem, hosting a diverse array of bacteria, fungi, and viruses that collectively contribute to maintaining its delicate balance, known as skin homeostasis. This complex microcosm plays a pivotal role in safeguarding the skin’s health.(1)

Extensive research has underscored the detrimental effects of high doses of ultraviolet radiation (UVR) on DNA within skin cells.(2) This exposure triggers inflammation and accelerates the aging process, a phenomenon known as photoaging.(3) However, there exists a noticeable gap in our understanding of how UVR impacts the resident bacteria on the skin in a live, in vivo context.

While some studies suggest that UVR may exert a positive influence on the skin by reducing levels of opportunistic pathogens, among other factors, contrasting research findings propose a more complex narrative.(4) This alternative perspective posits that UVR-induced disruptions to the skin’s microbial community can potentially lead to chronic inflammation and the development of conditions like eczema and psoriasis. This underscores the intricate relationship between environmental factors and skin health, highlighting the need for further investigation into this crucial area of dermatological research.(5) 

What is the Impact of Sun Exposure on Skin Microbiota?

Recent research has delved into the effects of short-term sun exposure associated with holidays on the skin’s microbiota. The findings reveal that sun exposure induces discernible alterations in both the diversity and composition of the skin’s microbial community. However, intriguingly, these changes exhibit a reversible pattern, normalizing approximately 28 days after returning home from the sunny destination.

Published in the esteemed journal Frontiers in Aging, this study sheds light on the dynamic relationship between sun exposure and the skin’s microbiome.(6) This study indicates a short-term shift in the skin microbiome associated with increased sun exposure or tanning during a holiday. However, there is a need for further research to uncover the underlying causes of this shift and to discern the potential long-term health implications.

This research provides valuable insights into the nuanced interplay between environmental factors, like sun exposure, and the delicate balance of the skin’s microbial inhabitants. Understanding these dynamics can be critical in advancing our knowledge of dermatological health and potentially unveiling strategies for maintaining skin wellness amidst varying environmental conditions. Further investigations hold the promise of unraveling the full scope of this intriguing phenomenon.

Investigating the Effects of Sun Exposure on Skin Microbiota: A Detailed Study

In a comprehensive study, researchers enlisted 21 North European residents, consisting of four men and 17 women, with an average age of approximately 33 years. These participants were carefully chosen to provide a diverse demographic for the study.

The research team collected skin swabs from each participant before they embarked on a holiday to a sunny destination, ensuring a minimum stay of seven days. Subsequently, additional swabs were taken immediately after their vacation, and then again 28 days and 84 days post-return.

To further refine their analysis, participants were categorized into three groups based on their skin color one day after returning from holiday: 

  • ‘Seekers’: Those who acquired a tan during their time away.
  • ‘Tanners’: Individuals who already possessed a tan prior to departure and maintained it while abroad.
  • ‘Avoiders’: Those who experienced minimal to no change in skin tone before and after the holiday.

Upon conducting a genetic analysis of the skin samples, researchers observed that three predominant bacteria, namely actinobacteria, proteobacteria, and firmicutes, collectively comprised 94 percent of all skin microbiota samples throughout the entire study period, both before and after the holiday.(7,8,9)

Interestingly, immediately after participants returned from their vacation, seekers and tanners exhibited significantly lower levels of proteobacteria compared to the avoider group. However, by days 28 and 84, levels of proteobacteria had reverted back to pre-holiday levels. In contrast, levels of actinobacteria and firmicutes remained consistent across all groups throughout the study duration.

Sun exposure may lead to alterations in the normal gram-negative bacteria that reside on the skin’s surface. These bacteria play a crucial role in regulating the other normal bacteria present, highlighting the intricate relationship between sun exposure and the skin’s microbial ecosystem. This study provides a significant step forward in understanding the transient effects of sun exposure on the skin’s microbiota, offering valuable insights for future research in dermatology. 

Understanding the Link between Eczema and the Skin Microbiome

Previous research has established a correlation between reduced levels of proteobacteria and skin conditions like eczema.(10) This finding underscores the pivotal role that the skin’s microbial composition plays in dermatological health.

Much like the gut, the skin also harbors a diverse array of microbial species. Disruptions, whether from factors like antibiotic usage or dietary changes, can perturb the delicate balance of the skin microbiome. The impact of ultraviolet radiation (UVR) on the skin’s microbiota is another significant factor to consider. When this equilibrium is altered, it can trigger an inflammatory response, potentially leading to skin conditions like eczema and dermatitis.

There are many complexities and interactions that govern how the skin’s immune system interacts with its environment. Disturbances in this delicate interplay can have far-reaching consequences. Shifts in the skin’s microbiota can activate the local immune system, inciting inflammation associated with conditions such as eczema.

While studies have indicated a connection between decreased levels of proteobacteria and conditions like eczema, further research is necessary to establish causality.(11,12) This highlights the need for ongoing investigations to uncover the precise mechanisms underlying the relationship between alterations in the skin microbiome and the development of eczema. These endeavors hold the potential to lead to more targeted and effective interventions for individuals affected by this challenging skin condition. 

Limitations of the Study and Avenues for Future Research

While the recent study provides valuable insights into the effects of sun exposure on skin microbiota, there are important limitations to consider.

It should be noted that the study’s participant pool was relatively small and predominantly made up of women. This gender imbalance may influence the generalizability of the findings. Moreover, the study did not factor in the various activities participants engaged in during their holidays, such as swimming or hiking, which could have additional implications on the skin microbiome.

The study also exclusively focused on British vacationers. Therefore, the results may not be directly applicable to other demographics. Additionally, factors like sunscreen usage and the choice of vacation destination were not accounted for. These considerations, while common limitations for an initial study, underscore the need for further investigations to provide a more comprehensive understanding and identify the underlying factors at play.

In the future, exploring the impact of sunscreens with varying SPF levels and formulations on the skin microbiota could yield valuable insights. Additionally, broadening the demographic scope of the study to include different populations and examining sun exposure in locations with varying levels of ozone protection would also contribute to a more nuanced understanding of the relationship between sun exposure and skin microbiota. These future studies hold the potential to refine our knowledge in this critical area of dermatological research. 

Sun Exposure and Skin Health: Insights from the Study

Experts have all hailed the reassuring findings from the study, indicating that the skin’s microbiome has a remarkable capacity to restore itself relatively quickly once individuals limit their sun exposure. This suggests that short-term or occasional sun exposure may not significantly elevate the risk of developing persistent conditions like eczema or dermatitis.(13,14)

However, the long-term effects of repeated sun exposure over months or years remain a subject of uncertainty. This is a critical consideration, particularly for individuals with autoimmune or inflammatory conditions such as eczema or psoriasis. While short-term exposure may not pose significant problems, a pattern of repeated exposure may potentially exacerbate these conditions.

Conducting population-level studies over an extended period could shed further light on this matter. It is important to underscore that excessive sun exposure, especially without protective measures like garments or sunscreen, is known to be harmful in various ways. This study adds an additional factor for vacationers to take into account when considering their sun exposure habits. As such, making informed decisions about sun protection is crucial for maintaining healthy skin in the long run. 


The study examining the interplay between vacation-related sun exposure and the skin microbiome offers valuable insights into the complex relationship between environmental factors and dermatological health. The observations provide a measure of reassurance, suggesting that the skin’s microbiome has a remarkable capacity for restoration after limited, short-term sun exposure. This implies that occasional sun exposure may not significantly heighten the risk of persistent conditions like eczema or dermatitis.

However, there is a need for deeper understanding of the long-term effects of repeated sun exposure over months or years, particularly for individuals with autoimmune or inflammatory conditions. This highlights the importance of informed decisions regarding sun protection and underscores the well-established understanding that excessive, unprotected sun exposure can be detrimental in various ways.


  1. Grice, E.A., 2015. The intersection of microbiome and host at the skin interface: genomic-and metagenomic-based insights. Genome research, 25(10), pp.1514-1520.
  2. Lee, J.W., Ratnakumar, K., Hung, K.F., Rokunohe, D. and Kawasumi, M., 2020. Deciphering UV‐induced DNA damage responses to prevent and treat skin cancer. Photochemistry and photobiology, 96(3), pp.478-499.
  3. Lesiak, A., Rogowski-Tylman, M., Danilewicz, M., Wozniacka, A. and Narbutt, J., 2016. One week’s holiday sun exposure induces expression of photoaging biomarkers. Folia histochemica et cytobiologica, 54(1), pp.42-48.
  4. Patra, V., Byrne, S.N. and Wolf, P., 2016. The skin microbiome: is it affected by UV-induced immune suppression?. Frontiers in microbiology, 7, p.1235.
  5. Patra, V., Laoubi, L., Nicolas, J.F., Vocanson, M. and Wolf, P., 2018. A perspective on the interplay of ultraviolet-radiation, skin microbiome and skin resident memory TCRαβ+ cells. Frontiers in medicine, 5, p.166.
  6. Willmott, T., Campbell, P.M., Griffiths, C.E., O’Connor, C., Bell, M., Watson, R.E., McBain, A.J. and Langton, A.K., 2023. Behaviour and sun exposure in holidaymakers alters skin microbiota composition and diversity. Frontiers in Aging, 4, p.1217635.
  7. Yan, D., Issa, N., Afifi, L., Jeon, C., Chang, H.W. and Liao, W., 2017. The role of the skin and gut microbiome in psoriatic disease. Current dermatology reports, 6, pp.94-103.
  8. Cosseau, C., Romano-Bertrand, S., Duplan, H., Lucas, O., Ingrassia, I., Pigasse, C., Roques, C. and Jumas-Bilak, E., 2016. Proteobacteria from the human skin microbiota: species-level diversity and hypotheses. One Health, 2, pp.33-41.
  9. Capone, K.A., Dowd, S.E., Stamatas, G.N. and Nikolovski, J., 2011. Diversity of the human skin microbiome early in life. Journal of Investigative Dermatology, 131(10), pp.2026-2032.
  10. Kim, J.E. and Kim, H.S., 2019. Microbiome of the skin and gut in atopic dermatitis (AD): understanding the pathophysiology and finding novel management strategies. Journal of clinical medicine, 8(4), p.444.
  11. Abrahamsson, T.R., Jakobsson, H.E., Andersson, A.F., Björkstén, B., Engstrand, L. and Jenmalm, M.C., 2012. Low diversity of the gut microbiota in infants with atopic eczema. Journal of allergy and clinical immunology, 129(2), pp.434-440.
  12. Beheshti, R., Halstead, S., McKeone, D. and Hicks, S.D., 2022. Understanding immunological origins of atopic dermatitis through multi‐omic analysis. Pediatric Allergy and Immunology, 33(6), p.e13817.
  13. Haluza, D., Simic, S. and Moshammer, H., 2016. Sun exposure prevalence and associated skin health habits: Results from the Austrian population-based UVSkinRisk survey. International journal of environmental research and public health, 13(1), p.141.
  14. Merin, K.A., Shaji, M. and Kameswaran, R., 2022. A review on sun exposure and skin diseases. Indian Journal of Dermatology, 67(5), p.625.
Pramod Kerkar, M.D., FFARCSI, DA
Pramod Kerkar, M.D., FFARCSI, DA
Written, Edited or Reviewed By: Pramod Kerkar, M.D., FFARCSI, DA Pain Assist Inc. This article does not provide medical advice. See disclaimer
Last Modified On:October 25, 2023

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