Phototherapy vs. Tanning: To UV Or Not To UV?
“I often call it a medical tanning booth, because of how it looks,” says Dr. Adam Mamelak, board-certified dermatologist in Austin, Texas. “The truth is, it’s pretty far from it.”
Phototherapy is a treatment dermatologists have been using for decades to treat vitiligo, psoriasis, eczema, and other skin conditions. It involves exposing the skin to metered doses of ultraviolet light to suppress specific inflammatory reactions in the skin.
For a long time, natural light has been known to offer relief to those who suffer from certain skin conditions. Patients report that their psoriasis and eczema gets better in the summer, or when they go to the beach. These observations lead to the creation of phototherapy, a more strategic, targeted treatment for these conditions.
“Ultraviolet light can suppress our immune systems, particularly at a local level in the skin,” explains Dr. Mamelak. This, as well as its other damaging effects, is one of the main reasons excessive exposure to UV light is thought to be a significant risk factor for the development of skin cancers.
Phototherapy is different, however. It employs very specific wavelengths of UV light. Furthermore, these wavelengths are different from the ones used in tanning beds. As well, treatments are measured extremely carefully in order to keep exposures well below the threshold for any possible cancer development.
Narrow Band UVB Therapy is now the most common type of phototherapy available. Its predecessor, Broadband UVB therapy, utilized wavelengths ranging from 280-330 nano-meters (nm), while Narrow Band solely uses light with a 311 nm wavelength. In contrast, tanning beds use bulbs that typically emit 95% UVA (320-400 nm) and 5% UVB (290-320 nm) light.
Narrow Band UVB 311 nm light bulbs only emit a specific range of ultraviolet radiation, hence saving the skin for excess or more dangerous exposures. Narrow Band UVB light is also a more aggressive treatment, allowing for longer treatment times, which ultimately yields greater results with fewer treatment sessions.
A patient scheduled for Narrow Band UVB therapy will come to the office to have their skin assessed and to set up a treatment plan. The light booth is generally used for full body treatment, however can be augmented with your physician to only focus on certain areas. Patients are scheduled for phototherapy treatments 2-3 times a week. During the treatments, patients are asked to stand in the upright booth for a time ranging from 30 seconds to almost 10 minutes. The exact duration spent in the booth tends to increase with each session, until a therapeutic effect is reached. Patients skin is evaluated at each treatment sessions, and the time will be adjusted according to the response.
Patients will shield there eyes and sensitive skin areas during treatment. Treatments are well tolerated and no pain is usually experienced. Mild erythema or redness on the skin may be noted. It is possible to get a sunburn from phototherapy. If you feel you have experienced a burn, tell your physician immediately. Phototherapy is an ideal option for patients with widepread disease, or who have previously attempted topical or oral therapies with mediocre responses.