We all know what we should be doing to stay safe in the sun in theory – covering up, putting on sun cream, wearing a hat etc, but it can be very hard to remember it all, especially in a country not exactly famed for its good weather.
So if you need a reminder of why sun safety is actually important – even in the UK, what exactly the difference is between UVB and UVA sun screens and when to apply them, or what to do if you DO get too much sun – this handy sun safety guide is for you.
The trick is to balance the need to get some much-needed vitamin D after a long winter, with NOT getting sunburnt. So we’ve put together our top tips – and answered many of your sun safety questions.
What can I do to stay safe in the sun?
None of it is rocket science – we all know the basics. But here’s the top 3 things you can do to keep yourself and your family safe in the sun.
- Stay out of the sun during the hottest part of the day – which in the UK is between 11am and 3pm
- Cover up with hats, clothes and sunglasses whenever possible – even when you’re wearing sun cream
- Always wear sun cream and keep topping it up throughout the day – especially after getting wet.
The key is to avoid getting burnt. Even slight pinkness indicates damage to your skin, and that damage does not just go away when the redness does.
What sort of sun cream do I need?
According to the NHS, people should be wearing sun cream with an SPF (sun protection factor) of at least 30 (or 50 for children) with at least a 4 star rating for UVA protection.
If you’re using an old bottle, always check the use-by date to make sure it’s still going to be effective.
And remember, sun cream doesn’t make you invulnerable to sun damage! You shouldn’t stay out in bright sunshine for longer than you would without it, and you should still cover up with clothing when you can.
What are UVB and UVA?
The sun produces UV radiation. UV light isn’t visible, but your skin can feel it. Ultraviolet A (UVA) light has a slightly longer wavelength and tends to be associated with skin ageing. Ultraviolet B (UVB) light tends to be associated with burning. Both types cause damage to your skin.
How much sun cream should I be using?
Probably more than you think! Spreading sun cream too thin stops it being effective. A good rule of thumb is that an average adult in a swimming costume needs to apply about two tablespoons full of sun cream to get the right coverage.
Any exposed area should be covered – including easily forgotten areas like ears, scalp, arm pits and toes, palms of the hands and souls of the feet.
When should I apply sun cream?
Even if you’re using plenty of sun cream, you might not be putting it on right! The NHS recommends putting on sun cream 30 minutes before you go into the sun, and again just before you leave the house.
What’s more, you have to keep reapplying it. Even water-resistant sun cream will need to be put on again when you come out of the water, and all sun cream can be sweated off or rub off under clothes.
The sun itself can dry sun cream off your skin, and you should be aiming to fully reapply at least every two hours.
What sort of cover-up should I be using?
Clothing and hats should be light enough for the heat, but have a close enough weave to block UV rays. That means your see-through floaty cover-up might not be protecting you as much as you thought…
The sun can also cause permanent damage to your eyes. Look for wraparound sunglasses with the CE Mark and British Standard Mark 12312-1:2013 E.
Who is most at risk of burning?
You are more at risk of burning if you have fair or red hair, light or light brown skin, lots of freckles or moles. This is because you have less of the protective pigment called melanin.
(Just note that it doesn’t mean people with darker skin can’t get skin cancer – it’s still important to be sun safe).
You are also more likely to burn if you work outside, if you’re not used to much sun, or if you’re experiencing more intense sun than usual - like you might on a foreign holiday. There are also certain medical conditions and medication that makes your skin more likely to burn.
Is getting burnt really that bad?
Yes. The more you burn – even very lightly – the greater your risk of developing skin cancer. It’s estimated that even one blistering sunburn in childhood or adolescence could double your chances of getting a melanoma in later life – one of the most serious types of skin cancer.
Most skin cancers are caused by exposure to the sun. Ultraviolet light actually damages the DNA in the skin cells – and it can happen years before a cancer develops.
How do I treat sun burn?
If you DO get burnt, get out of the sun as quickly as possible and cool it down with a shower, damp towel or soothing after-sun cream. Re-hydrate with water, and take paracetamol or ibuprofen to deal with the pain. Keep out of the sun completely until all signs of redness are gone.
If a child gets burnt it can be more serious, as their skin is more sensitive and it can lead to dehydration, heat exhaustion and heatstroke.
Seek medical attention for sunburn if there is severe pain and swelling, blistering, any dizziness or nausea, a high temperature or shivering, or symptoms like headaches and muscle cramps.
Who is most at risk of skin cancer?
The older you are, the more likely you are to develop non melanoma skin cancer. But skin cancers can develop in younger people too.
According to Cancer Research UK other risk factors for skin cancer include your history of sun exposure, your skin type, whether you’ve had skin cancer previously - and in some cases your family history, too.
What are the signs of skin cancer I need to look out for?
There are different types of skin cancer. The best known is melanoma, which can spread to other organs in the body, and is the fifth most common cancer in the UK.
The most common sign is the appearance of a new mole, or a change in an existing mole. If you have lots of moles on your skin, it’s well worth getting to know them so you can track any changes in shape, size or colour.
Melanomas often have an irregular shape and are more than one colour, without defined borders or edges. Moles can be larger than normal, and can sometimes be itchy or even bleed.
Find out more from the NHS
Non-melanoma skin cancer can be even harder to spot.
Look out for shiny lumps, itchy red patches, ulcers or sores that don’t heal for more than a month.
It’s really important to take anything you’re worried about to your GP to be checked out properly.
Find out more from Cancer Research UK