Phototherapy (also known as light therapy) is a type of medical treatment whereby the patient is exposed to sources of light, and the results carefully monitored by a doctor.

There are 2 main types of phototherapy used to treat skin conditions, and they are:

  • Narrowband UVB - This type of phototherapy uses only a small portion of UVB radiation to treat skin conditions. It is more intense than broadband UVB. This is the commonest type of phototherapy used by most centres.
  • PUVA - This stands for Psolaren ultraviolet-A, and combines UVA light with a type of chemical found in plants called psoralen, which can be applied to the skin directly or taken as a tablet. Psolaren increases the skin’s sensitivity to light, and the treatment is more intensive than other types of phototherapy. PUVA is offered at specialist centres only.

The effects of phototherapy for skin disorders are usually temporary, meaning patients typically require multiple sessions to maintain the results. These may be referred to as a course of phototherapy, or a course of treatment.

A course of phototherapy may be the only treatment someone undergoes for a particular condition, or they might have it at the same time as other treatment, like using creams or tablets. All treatment would be determined by the dermatologist as part of the patient’s individual treatment plan.

Some patients only need phototherapy seasonally, for example, during the dry, cold winter months when their skin condition may worsen. A person may require phototherapy one year and not another, depending on how environmental factors affect their condition.

Other types of phototherapy are used to treat mood and sleep disorders, such as seasonal affective disorder (SAD) and circadian rhythm sleep disorders, but these are not typically offered through dermatologists, who have specialised equipment for skin disorders.

What is the Benefit of Phototherapy?

Phototherapy in dermatology uses ultraviolet (UV) light to;

  • Reduce skin cell growth;
  • Calm inflammation;
  • Reduce itching;
  • Increase vitamin D production;
  • Stimulate the immune system and fight bacteria

Phototherapy treatment is overseen by expert skin specialists who monitor patients’ exposure to UV light so that the dosage is appropriate, and will yield the best results for their conditions while minimising risk.

Courses of phototherapy are often beneficial in treating skin disorders either periodically (when it is triggered) or longer-term.

Phototherapy may also be part of a more comprehensive treatment plan that could include other measures, like creams or tablets, depending on the individual patient.

Who is Phototherapy Suitable For?

Phototherapy is suitable for some patients who have skin conditions such as;

During your consultation with the dermatologist, you will be able to ask if phototherapy is a suitable treatment for your skin condition.

There are factors that mean some patients are not suitable for phototherapy treatment. These could include;

  • Certain medications;
  • The use of topical treatments;
  • Allergies;
  • Mobility issues;
  • A history of eye conditions (especially cataracts);
  • A history of kidney or liver problems;
  • Pregnancy or breastfeeding;
  • Increased risk of skin cancer.

What is the Process of Phototherapy?

While most phototherapy involves a similar process, there are slight differences in the procedure depending on the type of light therapy, and the condition being treated.

At the beginning of the session, you will be asked to remove clothing from the area to be treated. If the whole body is being treated, you’ll need to undress fully, and men will need to use a genital shield.

You’ll be given special goggles to protect your eyes, or a visor to cover your entire face if it’s not being treated. The dermatologist will let you know whether to apply any sunscreen in order to protect certain parts of healthy skin, such as your lips.

If your whole body is being treated, you’ll have the light therapy in a specially designed walk-in cabin that is fitted with UV lights. Fans that are built-in to the equipment control the temperature and offer ventilation, while sensors ensure the prescribed level of exposure.

It may feel daunting on the first treatment, but you can discuss any concerns with your dermatologist or the dermatology nurse beforehand, and easily open the door to stop the treatment if you feel at all uncomfortable during the treatment. It is important that you do not keep your eyes open, even though you are wearing goggles.

If you’re having treatment for your palms and or soles only, a smaller machine may be used to just treat these areas, in order to limit your exposure to UV radiation.

During the first few sessions, your phototherapy treatment may last less than a minute, and the duration will be gradually increased later, depending on how you respond.

For more information, or to book an appointment with Derma, please call the clinic or contact us via email here.


What are the Risks and Complications of Phototherapy?

Your dermatologist will discuss all possible side-effects of phototherapy with you during your consultation, and you will be given advice on how to prepare for phototherapy before your first treatment. Additionally, you will be provided follow-up care information so that you know what to do, and what to avoid after treatment.

Some side-effects of all types of phototherapy include red skin, which looks and feels similar to a sunburn.

Some people’s skin can become dry and itchy, and may break out in a rash, or blisters.

If you typically get cold sores (herpes simplex virus or HSV), it’s possible that phototherapy can trigger an outbreak, so the dermatologist may instruct you to use a sunscreen on the lip area, and continue with any usual medication you have been prescribed.

Patients may develop an infection of the hair follicles, which is known as folliculitis; and this would require further treatment.

As with natural UV radiation from sunlight, phototherapy can increase the risk of skin cancer and also cause premature skin ageing over the long term. To reduce that risk, your dermatologist will;

  • Provide shields for more sensitive parts of the body like the face and genitals;
  • Ensure the lowest dose of UVB or PUVA possible to provide a beneficial effect;
  • Keep records of the total amount of phototherapy to monitor exposure and ensure it’s within safe limits over a course of treatment and during your lifetime;
  • Regularly monitor your skin for signs of skin cancer;
  • Provide patient information on how to protect the skin and reduce exposure to UV light following phototherapy treatment.

Phototherapy also increases the risk of damage to the eyes, especially if you’ve had cataracts or other eye issues, however, wearing eye protection will help to reduce this risk.

What is the Recovery Time and Outcome?

Unless the dermatologist or dermatology nurse tell you otherwise, you’ll usually be able to leave the clinic right after your phototherapy treatment session. You should avoid exposure to the sun or other forms of ultraviolet light while undergoing phototherapy.

Related Specialists at Derma

The following dermatologists specialise in Phototherapy

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