Protect your skin from sun damage

After the long cold winter months, the urge to get outside and enjoy the sunnier summer weather can be quite overwhelming. But, as enjoyable as it is to be outside in the sun, it’s important to take care of your skin.

Skin cancer is a real threat and the number of cases being diagnosed every year is on the increase.

In the late 1970s, there were about 290 cases each year of malignant melanoma in 15 to 34 year-olds.

But figures released by Cancer Research UK reveal that over 8 out of 10 melanomas in the UK (around 11,100 cases every year) are linked to too much exposure to UV rays from sunlight or sunbeds.

Thirty years ago, melanoma was the seventh most common cancer for 15 to 34 year-olds in Britain - now it’s the second most common.

It’s not just the younger generations that are facing more cases of skin cancer. The latest figures show that the total number of cases of malignant melanoma in all ages is rising too, with more than 11,700 people now affected by skin cancer each year. For all age groups, malignant melanoma is currently the sixth most common cancer.

What causes sun damage?

Many people still favour suntanned skin, but tanning itself is actually a sign that your skin is damaged. The sun emits several types of ultraviolet (UV) rays that are invisible but which penetrate the skin and damage it.

  • UVA, or long wavelength, rays penetrate deep into the layers of the skin, harming the elastin, intensifying premature ageing and generally damaging the skin.
  • UVB, or short wavelength, rays penetrate the outer layers of the skin and play a big role in causing sunburn.

When your skin goes red, or you have sunburn, it means your skin has been damaged. This damage builds up over time and increases the risk of skin cancer.

Sunbeds

It’s not just sun damage that increases the risk of skin cancer. Using sunbeds is a risk factor too, as it exposes the skin to high levels of radiation.

According to Cancer Research UK, using a sunbed before you’re 35 years old significantly increases the skin cancer risk.

Ongoing concern about the use of sunbeds has led to a new law in England and Wales, as of April 2011, banning under-18s from using sunbeds. It’s already illegal for under-18s to use sunbeds and for unstaffed tanning salons in Scotland; Northern Ireland is likely to follow with a similar law next.

If you’re keen to have a tan, the safest way to achieve it is to use fake tan.

Skin cancer and skin types

Some people have a higher risk of skin cancer, particularly if you have:

  • fair skin
  • lots of moles
  • fair or red hair
  • light-coloured eyes
  • a family history of skin cancer

One of the best things you can do to reduce the risk of skin cancer is to know your skin and protect it.

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 easily, 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 beneficial.

Using sunscreen

Applying sunscreen to your skin before you go outside during the summer months (and on cloudy days too, as 30-40% of UV still gets through clouds) helps reduce the risk of skin damage.

  • Choose a sunscreen with an SPF (Sun Protection Factor) of at least 15; the SPF provides protection against burning and UVA damage.
  • Look for sunscreens that are labelled as being ‘broad-spectrum’ (marked with a star rating system) and have at least four or five stars; this means they offer protection against UVA damage too.
  • Apply to clean dry skin, ideally before other skin care products.
  • Allow approximate measurements of two teaspoons of sunscreen to cover your arms, neck and face, and up to two tablespoons to cover your body.
  • Re-apply during the day or more often if you’ve been in the water.
  • Don’t forget to check the expiry date - sunscreen has a shelf life of two to three years

Sun protection tips

No sunscreen offers full protection, so follow these tips too.

  • Stay in the shade between 11am and 3pm, when the sun is at its hottest and highest in the sky.
  • Cover exposed areas, such as your arms or legs; close-weave clothes offer the most protection against UV rays.
  • Wear a wide-brimmed hat to protect your head.
  • Wear sunglasses to protect your eyes; the wrap-around style is good.
  • Look for sunglasses marked BS EN 1836:1997, with a UV 400 label.

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*Cancer Research UK, ‘Can cancer be prevented?’ (2014)

**Based on a 30-year-old non-smoker with no family history of cancer.