We tend to make the most of the sun in this country. The second a sliver of sunshine appears through the clouds, we’ll dash off to the beach or out into the garden before it goes away again.
Enjoying some time in the sun is great, but it’s important that you do it safely. We’re here to explain how a few quick and easy precautions can be vital for your health.
How can sunlight damage your skin?
While the sun's one of our best sources of Vitamin D, it also hits our skin with two types of potentially harmful ultraviolet radiation.
First there’s UVA, which reduces the elasticity of your skin and causes signs of ageing, such as wrinkles and liver spots. UVA penetrates deep into the skin and too much of it can increase your risk of skin cancer.
Then we have UVB, which is what causes sunburn, a reaction that occurs when your skin is over-exposed to the sun. Lots of UVB over many years will increase your risk of skin cancer in later life.
How to stay safe in the sun
1. Choose a good quality sunscreen
Some sunscreens are better than others. You need to find one that protects you against both UVA and UVB light.
UVA is much more prevalent than UVB, accounting for around 95% of the UV (ultraviolet) rays reaching the earth’s surface from the sun. It tends to reach the deeper surfaces of the skin and is associated with skin ageing. UVB is much less prevalent, but much more potent. It tends to affect the surface layers of the skin and is the chief cause of sunburn. Both UVA and UVB play important roles in the development of skin cancer, so protecting against both is very important.
Let’s deal with UVB first. Protection against this is indicated by the Sun Protection Factor (SPF) of the sunscreen. The recommendation from Cancer Research UK is to use an SPF of at least 15 in order to protect your skin. However, The British Skin Foundation recommends using a SPF of at least 30, so the higher you go the more you will protect yourself against skin cancer.
UVA protection is indicated by the star rating of the sunscreen. Products can be awarded between zero and five stars. A higher star rating indicates you’re getting a similar level of UVA protection as UVB. Cancer Research UK recommend getting a sunscreen with at least four stars. UVA protection can also be indicated by the letters ‘UVA’ in a circle.
It’s important to look at both SPF and UVA star rating. Here’s how it works. An SPF 30 sunscreen needs to have at least a four-star rating to offer adequate UVA protection. On the other hand, an SPF 10 sunscreen with a high star rating offers equally poor protection from both forms of UV light.
Confused? We don’t blame you. If getting your head around that feels too much like hard work, you can just look for the words ‘broad spectrum’ on the label instead. This indicates full protection against both UVA and UVB light.
2. Use sunscreen properly
Now that you’ve got yourself a strong sunscreen, it’s important to use it properly.
For starters, you should put on sunscreen at least half an hour before you head out. Your skin needs this time to absorb it properly. Waiting until you’re already in the sun will effectively leave you without protection for a short while.
Use a generous amount and remember that you need to reapply even more frequently if you’re swimming or sweating, even if your sunscreen claims to be ‘waterproof’. Moist skin is actually at increased risk of getting burned, and reflection of UV rays off the surface of the water in swimming pools or the sea can increase exposure even more.
3. Cover up
Your choice of clothing can have an effect on your UV protection. At a basic level, clothes that cover as much skin as possible are best. However, it shouldn’t surprise you to hear that there’s a little more to it than that.
It is still possible to burn through clothing. You can find clothes that include an Ultraviolet Protection Factor (UPF), indicated by a label on the clothing, which tells you how much UV light is blocked by the garment. A UPF of 40 or higher means that your clothes will absorb or reflect at least 97% of UV light.
Darker clothes tend to give more protection, as they’re better at absorbing UV light than lighter colours.
If you can’t find clothes with a UPF or you’re put off by higher costs, there’s plenty you can do. Choose a tightly woven fabric such as polyester or nylon, as a more open weave will allow more UV light to pass through. If you’re buying tight fitting clothes, make sure they’re not too small, as stretched fabrics will also let more light through.
Finally, to protect your head, face and neck you should invest in a wide-brimmed hat. Around three inches should be enough to keep you in the shade and make sure sensitive areas such as your nose, ears and scalp don’t burn.
4. Shield your eyes
We all know that looking directly at the sun isn’t a good idea, but just being outside on a bright day can damage your eyes if you don’t protect yourself. Research in the past has found that around 5-10% of skin cancers occur on the thin, delicate skin of the eyelids.
As for your sight, UVA light can damage your retina at the back of your eye and affect your central vision, while UVB light can cause cataracts and a condition known as corneal sunburn, which is exactly as painful as it sounds.
Next time you buy sunglasses, remember that a higher price does not guarantee protection against UV light. Read the label before you part with any cash and only buy them from a recognised retailer. Indicators of high quality safe glasses include 'CE Mark' and British Standard, a UV 400 label, or ‘100% UV protection’ written on the label or sticker.
5. Avoid the strongest sunlight
The sun fires out its strongest, most damaging UV rays when it’s highest in the sky. This is usually between 11am and 3pm, so try to limit your exposure at these times. Consider spending some time in the shade, perhaps while you eat your lunch?
This is particularly true if you’re one of those people who burns easily. Generally, people with blue or green eyes, fair skin, blond or red hair, those with lots of moles or freckles, and those with a personal or family history of skin cancer are most at risk. Having said that, it’s important to remember that skin cancer can affect anyone, regardless of their skin tone.
6. Be careful with your tan
While a tan might look great, it’s important to remember the reason why your skin changes colour. Simply put, a suntan is a sign of skin damage. In response to UV light, your skin produces a pigment called melanin that protects your DNA from the kind of long-term harm that could lead to skin cancer.
We should also deal with the dangerous myth that a suntan can stop you getting sunburnt. It can’t.
Scientists proved this as far back as 1981, when a study showed that a suntan only offers a Sun Protection Factor of between two and three. If you were paying attention earlier, you’ll remember that you need at least SPF 15 to guard against sunburn.
Don’t use tanning beds as an alternative either. These are no safer than the sun itself. They fire lots of UVA light at you at a much higher level than natural sunlight and will almost certainly increase your risk of skin cancer. Some studies have shown that they are even higher risk than the sun.
7. Advice on skin issues and medication
If you notice anything unusual about your skin, it’s vital that you see a doctor as soon as possible. The general rule around possible skin cancers follows the ABCDE format. If you notice a blemish, ask yourself the following questions:
- Is it asymmetrical (i.e. is one side bigger than the other)?
- Is it easy to tell where the borders are?
- Is it more than one colour? Be especially wary of anything with dark brown, black or red patches.
- Is it more than 6mm in diameter?
- Has it become enlarged? This includes blemishes that have spread out or become raised.
If the answer to one of these questions is ‘yes’, it’s time to get yourself checked out.
Also be aware of any spots or sores that don’t heal within 4 weeks, sores that are itchy, crusty, scabbed over or bleeding for more than 4 weeks, or areas where skin has broken down and isn’t healing, as these can also be signs of potential cancer that need to be checked by a doctor.
If you plan to be out in the sun, you should also check the side effects of any medication you’re taking. Some medicines, including some antibiotics, antihistamines and antidepressants, will increase your sensitivity to sunlight. Either they’ll make your skin more sensitive, or they’ll reduce your ability to sweat, which could lead to heatstroke on a hot day. Speak to your pharmacist if you are unsure.
8. Sun safety for children
Did you know that almost a quarter of our lifetime exposure to sunlight occurs during childhood?
If your child isn’t properly protected against UV rays, it can cause serious skin problems in their later life. All of the advice we’ve given so far applies to children, too. In fact, it’s best to be even more cautious. Encouraging healthy sun safety behaviour in children can also raise their knowledge and awareness of this in the future.
Children aged six months or younger should be kept out of the sun, as their skin is still very sensitive. This lack of sunlight also means that younger children should be given a daily Vitamin D supplement to ensure they maintain strong, healthy bones.
9. Drink plenty of water
A less visible sign of sun damage is dehydration. When the weather is hot, you are at much greater risk of becoming dehydrated and developing heat stroke. As well as following the advice above, drinking plenty of water can help. At least 2 litres a day is recommended, and try to avoid alcohol and caffeine.
Get the advice you need
Our doctors can give advice about sun safety and check the possible side effects of your medication. If you’re concerned about a mark on your skin, our face-to-face video consultations allow them to check it for you and advise next steps.See a doctor