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Travel health information for people travelling abroad from the UK

Health Risks from the Sun

Sun Damage to the Skin

Many people associate a tan with looking healthy. In reality tanning is our skins defence response against the harmful effects of ultraviolet (UV) radiation.

Some sun exposure below sunburn level can be beneficial, helping our bodies create vitamin D and promoting feelings of general well being; however, travellers should be made aware of the dangers of UV radiation.

Sun Exposure can Lead to a Range of Skin Problems:

• Sunburn
• Skin cancer
• Photosensitive rashes
• May worsen existing conditions such as rosacea and eczema

Sunburn is more likely when, in addition to direct exposure from the sun, UV is also reflected from water (swimming pools or the sea), white sand or snow. The risk is greater at higher altitudes when there is less protection from the earth's atmosphere.

Effects of UV Radiation

  • Solar UV radiation is transmitted in three wavelengths - UVA, UVB and UVC. UVC does not penetrate the earth's atmosphere; this means we only need to protect our skin against UVA and UVB.
  • UVA affects the skins elastin, leading to wrinkles and sun-induced skin damage. UVA protection in a sunscreen helps defend the skin against ageing and skin damage associated with cancer.
  • UVB is most responsible for sunburn and has strong links to malignant melanoma and basal cell carcinoma. The SPF (sun protection factor) in sunscreens helps block UVB rays and prevent the skin from burning, and the skin damage associated with skin cancer.
  • The SPF refers to the protection against UVB (e.g. SPF 8 allows approximately 8 times longer sun exposure without burning than with no protection).
  • Travellers should use a sunscreen which offers both UVA and UVB protection. It should be at least SPF 15 for UVB protection and 4 stars for UVA. A higher SPF may be advised when UV exposure is likely to be high (e.g. near water, snow and at altitude).

Vulnerable Groups

  • Babies and children.
  • Fair skinned people, those with red hair, freckles or moles.
  • Those with certain medical conditions such as albinism or previous skin cancer.
  • Those taking medicines such as tetracyclines (including doxycycline), oral hypoglycaemic drugs and diuretics.

Sun safety

The safest way to enjoy the sun and protect your skin from sunburn is to use a combination of shade, clothing and sunscreen.

  • Use a sunscreen of at least SPF 15 which also has high UVA protection.
  • Ensure sunscreens are applied correctly, see application advice below.
  • Cover up using clothing such as wide brimmed hat and long sleeved tops, closed weaved fabrics may offer better sun protection.
  • Protecting eyes from sun exposure may reduce risk of developing cataracts. Use sunglasses with a CE mark, UV400 label or that offer 100% UV protection.
  • Seek shelter; avoid sun exposure between 11am and 3pm when sun is typically stronger.
  • Infants and children should be well protected at all times.
  • Take special care if you have pale skin/red hair, freckles or moles.
  • Report any changes in a mole to your GP promptly.

Sunscreen Application

  • Use a sunscreen of at least SPF 15 that ideally has a five star UVA rating.
  • Apply sunscreens generously (approximately 2 tablespoons for exposed skin).
  • Apply sunscreen to ALL sun exposed areas.
  • Get the timing right: sunscreen needs to be applied 20-30 minutes before sun exposure.
  • Sunscreen should be applied and allowed to absorb before application of insect repellents, moisturisers and make-up.
  • Remember that showering, swimming and sweating may remove sunscreen; ensure frequent application and consider water resistant sunscreens.

Some sun protection products offer 8+ hours of protection from one application. Once-a-day sun protectors do not account for poor application or removal through sweating, showering or swimming. Consequently, if a section of skin is accidentally missed during the initial application or sunscreen is accidentally removed the skin may be subjected to raw sun exposure.

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