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Sun damage: the risks and how to protect yourself

 sun protection

After the long cold winter months, it’s hard to resist the urge to get outside and enjoy the sunnier weather.

A spell of sunlight is good for your physical and mental health. We get most of our vitamin D from the sun. This helps the body to absorb calcium and phosphorus, the minerals required for healthy bones and teeth. Sun exposure can also ease the symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), which many people suffer from over the dark, winter months.

Whenever you head out into the sun, however, it is important to protect your skin.

Here, we outline some of the risks of sun damage to your skin and share some simple steps to help you stay safe.

How does the sun damage your skin?

Many people love how a sun tan looks but it is actually a sign that your skin is damaged.

The sun emits several types of ultraviolet (UV) rays. These are invisible but penetrate the skin. The two main types are:

  • UVA, or long wavelength, rays. These penetrate deep into the layers of the skin and make cells called melanocytes produce melanin. This is designed to protect your skin from burning, but it can also lead to melanoma, the most serious type of skin cancer. UVA rays can also harm the elastin in your skin, which leads to general skin damage and premature ageing.
  • UVB, or short wavelength, rays. These penetrate the outer layers of the skin and play a big role in causing sunburn.

Skin cancer: an overview

Skin cancer is one of the most common cancers in the world, and is mostly caused by too much exposure to UV light.

There are two broad types of skin cancer – non-melanoma and melanoma.

Melanoma

This is the most aggressive form of skin cancer and can spread to other parts of the body.

There are many different types of melanoma, but the most common sign that you have one is the growth of a new mole – or a current mole changing. These moles may be bigger than your others, and can itch or bleed. Melanomas may also be multiple colours and irregular in shape. Most doctors recommend the “ABCDE” rule for checking moles.

UV light causes most melanomas, and there is some evidence to suggest that this could include if you use a sunbed as sudden bursts of sunlight (for example, when you use the sunbed or go on holiday) can lead to sunburn which puts you at risk.

If you catch a melanoma early, they can usually be successfully treated by surgically removing them. If the melanoma is advanced, treatment tends to focus on slowing the cancer down and managing symptoms.

For more information on melanoma skin cancer, you can read our NHS factsheet.

Non-melanoma

Non-melanoma cancer tends to affect the upper layers of the skin and is more common than the melanoma.

The most common symptom is a hard red lump or discoloured, flat and flaky patch appearing on your skin. These tend to last a few weeks – and can even grow over months and years.

There are many different types of non-melanoma, but all are caused by your skin being exposed to too much UV light.

Treatment depends on the type and size of the tumour, and where it is on your body. Surgery is the most common treatment, but you can also freeze the tumour, use an anti-cancer cream or undergo radiotherapy or photodynamic therapy.

We have more information about non-melanoma skin cancer on our NHS factsheet.

Some people have a higher risk of skin damage and skin cancer, especially if you have:

  • Fair skin
  • Lots of moles
  • Fair or red hair
  • A family or personal history of skin cancer.

Read more about the causes and risks of skin cancer.

5 top tips for protecting your skin from sun damage

1. Use sunscreen – even on cloudy days

Applying sunscreen to your skin before you go outside during the summer months and on cloudy days (UV rays get through clouds) helps reduce the risk of skin damage.

Sunscreens are useful for protecting our skin from the sun's rays, but will not protect us completely from sun damage on their own. Use them together with shade or clothing to avoiding sunburn.

If you have fair skin or if you burn very easily, you will need the highest level of protection. Even if your skin tends to tan rather than burn, it’s still important to take care in the sun and use sunscreen.

If you have naturally brown or black skin, the extra melanin pigment in the skin cells may provide a bit more protection against harm from UV rays but sun protection is still necessary.

When choosing sunscreen, you should:

  • Choose a sunscreen with an SPF (sun protection factor) of at least 15. The SPF provides protection against burning and UVB damage.
  • Look for sunscreens that are labelled ‘broad-spectrum’ as this shows they protect you from UVB and UVA damage. This is shown using a star rating system, so look for at least 4 or 5 stars for good protection.
  • Apply sunscreen liberally to clean dry skin, ideally before other skincare products.
  • Apply approximately two teaspoons of sunscreen to cover your arms, neck and face, and up to two tablespoons to cover your body.
  • Follow the manufactures instructions and re-apply frequently
  • Re-apply after you’ve been in water. Sunscreen can be easily washed, rubbed or sweated off and even sunscreens that claim to be 'waterproof' should be reapplied after going in the water.
  • Don’t forget to check the expiry date – most sunscreens have a shelf life of two to three years.
  • Don’t store sunscreens in very hot places as extreme heat can ruin their protective chemicals.

2. Stay in the shade between 11am and 3pm

Midday hours are when the sun is at its hottest and highest in the sky. Find shade under trees, umbrellas, canopies or move indoors. A simple way to find out when the sun's rays are at their strongest is to look at your shadow – if it’s shorter than your height, this means that the sun's UV rays are strong and you need to be particularly careful.

3. Cover up

When there's no shade around, cover exposed areas, such as your arms or legs (close-weave clothes offer the most protection against UV rays) and wear a wide-brimmed hat to protect your head.

4. Wear protective sunglasses

Overexposure to UV rays can damage the eyes too. Too much UV can lead to cataracts and rare types of eye cancer.

When choosing sunglasses look for the following:

  • The 'CE Mark', which shows they conform to European standards
  • The British Standard (BS EN 1836)
  • A UV 400 label or 100% UV protection label.

5. Avoid sunbeds

Sunbeds are a risk factor as it exposes the skin to high levels of radiation.

Ongoing concern about the use of sunbeds has led to the use of them being banned by law to anyone aged under-18 in the UK. If you’re keen to have a tan, the safest way to achieve it is to use fake tan.

Further Reading

How should I check my moles?

My story: Malignant melanoma

Skin cancer causes and risks

Skin cancer (non-melanoma)

Skin cancer (melanoma)

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