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Sun Exposure

Some sun exposure - below the level of sunburn - can be beneficial through helping our bodies create vitamin D and promoting feelings of general well being. However, it is essential to be aware of the dangers of sun exposure and the associated increased risk of skin cancer. Sun exposure can lead to a range of skin problems including:

  • Sunburn.
  • Skin cancer
  • Photosensitive rashes
  • Wrinkles and skin aging
  • Exascerbation of existing conditions such as rosacea and eczema

Risk of sunburn is increased when, in addition to direct exposure from the sun, Ultraviolet radiation (UV) is also reflected e.g. from water (swimming pools or the sea), white sand or snow. The risk is also greater at higher altitudes when there is less protection from the earth's atmosphere.

Effects of UV Radiation

UV radiation from the sun is the main cause of skin cancer. UV is transmitted in three wavelengths - UVA, UVB and UVC. UVC does not penetrate the earth's atmosphere but we still need to protect our skin against UVA and UVB. 

UVB is the form of UV radiation most responsible for sunburn and has strong links to malignant melanoma and other skin cancers. Sunburn is an indication that the DNA in the skin has been damaged. Getting painful sunburn once very 2 years can triple the chance of melanoma. In the UK 8 out of 10 cases of melanoma could be prevented through avoidance of sunburn.

UVB protection in sunscreen helps prevent sunburn which is linked to skin cancers. UVA is the form of UV radiation that affects the skins elastin, leading to wrinkles and sun-induced skin damage. UVA protection in a sunscreen helps defend the skin against photo ageing.  

Vulnerable Groups

  • Babies and children.
  • Fair skinned people.
  • Those with red or fair hair.
  • Those with lots of freckles or moles.
  • Those with light coloured eyes.
  • Anyone with a previous history of sunburn.
  • Anyone with a personal or family history of skin cancer.
  • Those with certain medical conditions such as albinism or previous skin cancer. 
  • Those taking drugs which may increase photosensitivity, 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.

  • Seek shelter; avoid sun exposure between 11am and 3pm when sun is typically stronger.
  • Cover up using clothing such as wide brimmed hat and long sleeved tops, closed weaved fabrics may offer better sun protection.
  • Use sunscreen properly (see below).
  • Protect eyes from sun exposure to help reduce risk of developing cataracts. Use sunglasses with a CE mark and British Standard, UV400 label or 100% UV protection sticker.
  • Infants and children should be well protected at all times.
  • Take special care if you have pale skin/red hair, freckles or moles.

Additionally, The British Association of Dermatologists recommends that you tell your doctor about any changes to a mole - if your GP is concerned about your skin, make sure you see a Consultant Dermatologist (on the GMC register of specialists), the most expert person to diagnose a skin cancer. Your GP can refer you via the NHS.

Sunscreen Application

  • Use a sunscreen of at least SPF 15 (UVB protection) and 4 stars (UVA protection); the brand of sunscreen makes no difference so long as it has these properties.
  • Use with shade and clothing – sunscreen alone does not offer full protection.
  • Apply sunscreens generously (approximately 2 teaspoons for head, face and neck and approximately 2 tablespoons for rest of the body ).
  • Apply sunscreen to ALL sun exposed areas.
  • Get the timing right: sunscreen needs to be applied 20 - 30 minutes before sun exposure.
  • Reapply after washing or being in water; even water resistant sunscreen needs to be reapplied after being in water.
  • Sunscreen should be applied and allowed to absorb before application of  insect repellents, moisturisers and make-up.
  • Don’t spend longer in the sun because you have sunscreen on; there is some evidence that those who use higher SPF are more likely to burn because they stay in the sun for longer.
  • Store sunscreen out of the heat and check the expiry date.
  • 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. 

Further Information Cancer Research UK at:

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