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Be sunsmart

Whether you're at home or abroad it's important to know how to look after yourself and your family so you can enjoy the sun safely.

Skin cancer is one of the most common cancers in the world. The main cause is too much ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun or sunbeds.

What is UV?

There are two main types of UV rays which damage our skin. Both types can cause skin cancer:

  • UVA penetrates deep into the skin, ageing it, but it contributes much less towards sunburn
  • UVB causes the majority of sunburns

There's no safe or healthy way to get a tan. A tan doesn't protect your skin from the sun's harmful effects.

Sunburn

What is sunburn?

Sunburn is a clear sign that the DNA in your skin cells has been damaged by too much UV radiation. It doesn’t have to be raw, peeling or blistering. If your skin has gone pink or red in the sun, it’s sunburnt. For people with darker skin, it may just feel irritated, tender or itchy.

You can’t feel UV rays – the heat from the sun comes from infrared rays, which can’t burn you. This is why people can still burn on cool days. Sunburn doesn't just happen on holiday either; you can burn in the UK, even when it's cloudy.

Getting sunburn just once every two years can triple your risk of melanoma skin cancer.

What happens to my skin when it burns?

See what happens to your skin when you get sunburnt.

How to treat sunburn

  • Sponge sore skin with cool water, then apply soothing after sun or calamine lotion
  • Painkillers, such as paracetamol or ibuprofen, will ease the pain by helping to reduce inflammation caused by sunburn
  • Stay out of the sun until all signs of redness have gone
  • Seek medical help if you feel unwell or the skin swells badly or blisters

Staying safe in the sun

Reduce Your Risk: Sunsmart guide

To avoid sunburn, make sure you:

  • spend time in the shade between 11am and 3pm when the sun is strongest (in the UK, this is from March to October)
  • use at least Factor 15 sunscreen
  • cover up with suitable clothing and sunglasses
  • take extra care with children

Children and sun protection

Take extra care to protect babies and children from the sun. Their skin is much more sensitive than adult skin, and damage caused by repeated exposure to sunlight could lead to skin cancer developing in later life.

Children aged under six months should be kept out of strong, direct sunlight.

In the UK, from March to October, children should:

  • spend time in the shade – particularly from 11am to 3pm
  • wear at least SPF15 sunscreen
  • apply sunscreen to areas not protected by clothing, such as the face, ears, feet, and backs of hands
  • cover up with suitable clothing

Who should take extra care in the sun?

You should take extra care in the sun if you:

  • have pale, white or light brown skin
  • have freckles, or red or fair hair
  • tend to burn rather than tan
  • have many moles
  • have skin problems relating to a medical condition
  • are only exposed to intense sun occasionally – for example, while on holiday
  • are in a hot country where the sun is particularly intense
  • have a family history of skin cancer

Image explaining that the sun's UV rays are strongest when your shadow is shorter than you

Sunscreen

What factor sunscreen (SPF) should I use?

Don't rely on sunscreen alone to protect yourself from the sun. Wear suitable clothing and spend time in the shade when the sun is at its hottest (see above). 

Sunscreen should have:

  • a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 15 to protect against UVB
  • at least four-star UVA protection (UVA protection can also be indicated by the letters UVA in a circle, which indicates that it meets the EU standard)

Does the brand of sunscreen make a difference?

All sunscreens use the same methods to determine how protective they are. This means that brand and price are less important than things like the SPF and star ratings, which tell you how much protection they offer.

Using sunscreen

Most people don't apply enough sunscreen. As a guide, adults should aim to apply around:

  • two teaspoons of sunscreen if you're just covering your head, arms and neck
  • two tablespoons if you're covering your entire body while wearing a swimming costume

If sunscreen is applied too thinly, the amount of protection it gives is reduced. If you're worried you might not be applying enough SPF15, you could use a stronger SPF30 sunscreen.

Sunscreen should be applied to all exposed skin, including the face, neck and ears – and head if you have thinning or no hair – but a wide-brimmed hat is better.

Water-resistant sunscreen is needed if sweating or contact with water is likely.

Reapplying sunscreen

Sunscreen needs to be reapplied liberally and often, and according to the manufacturer's instructions.

It should be reapplied after towel drying, sweating, or when it may have rubbed off, and straight after you've been in water even if the sunscreen is labelled as water resistant. Water washes sunscreen off, and the cooling effect of the water can make you think you're not getting burned. Water also reflects ultraviolet (UV) rays, increasing your exposure.

Protecting yourself

Your eyes

Avoid looking directly at the sun, as this can cause permanent eye damage.

Being out in the sun without proper eye protection can cause a temporary but painful burn to the surface of the eye, similar to sunburn. Reflected sunlight from snow, sand, concrete and water, and artificial light from sunbeds, is particularly dangerous.

Clothing and sunglasses

Wear clothes and sunglasses which provide sun protection, such as:

  • a wide-brimmed hat that shades the face, neck and ears
  • a long-sleeved top
  • trousers or long skirts in close-weave fabrics that don't allow sunlight through
  • sunglasses with wraparound lenses or wide arms with the CE Mark and European Standard EN 1836:2005

Skin cancer

People who spend a lot of time in the sun, whether it's for work or play, are at increased risk of skin cancer if they don't take the right precautions.

People with naturally brown or black skin are less likely to get skin cancer, as darker skin has some protection against UV rays, but skin cancer can still occur.

If you have lots of moles or freckles, your risk of getting skin cancer is higher than average, so take extra care.

Keep an eye out for changes to your skin including:

  • a new mole, growth or lump
  • any moles, freckles or patches of skin that change in size, shape or colour

Report these changes to your doctor as soon as possible. Skin cancer is much easier to treat if it's found early. In the UK more than 8 in 10 cases of melanoma, the most serious type of skin cancer, could be prevented by enjoying the sun safely and avoiding using sunbeds.

In the UK, more than 10,000 new cases of non-melanoma skin cancer (a group of cancers that slowly develop in the upper layers of the skin) are diagnosed every year.

Sunbeds

Sunbeds give out harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays that damage your skin and can make it look wrinkled, older or leathery. The UV rays from sunbeds can also damage the DNA in your skin cells, and over time this damage can build up to cause skin cancer.

Sunbeds and lamps can be more dangerous than natural sunlight because they use a concentrated source of UV radiation.

Health risks linked to sunbeds and other UV tanning equipment include:

  • skin cancer
  • premature skin ageing
  • sunburnt skin  
  • eye irritation

It's illegal for people under the age of 18 to use sunbeds, including in tanning salons, beauty salons, leisure centres, gyms, and hotels.

Vitamin D

What is a good balance of vitamin D?

Sunlight is the main source of vitamin D, but it is also the main cause of skin cancer. The amount of time you need in the sun to make enough vitamin D is different for each person. It also depends on things like skin type, time of day, time of year, and where you are in the world. This means it’s only possible to give a generalised recommendation on how much sun is needed to make enough vitamin D.

Most white people should be able to make enough vitamin D from short, casual exposure without sun protection like you might get just by going about your daily life. People with darker skin tones might need longer in the sun, but also have a lower risk of sunburn and skin cancer.

Enjoying the sun safely, while taking care not to burn, should help most people get a good balance. You shouldn’t have to redden or burn your skin to make enough vitamin D.

People should get to know their own skin to understand how long they can spend outside before risking sunburn under different conditions.

More information

Data sources: CRUK, NHS Choices.