Overexposure to ultraviolet (UV) light from the sun or sunbeds is the main cause of skin cancer. That means that most cases of skin cancer are preventable.
Whatever your age, the best way to enjoy the sun safely and protect your skin from skin cancer is to use a combination of:
- Sun-protection factor (sunscreen).
Children and teenagers might need a reminder or a helping hand, but setting a good example yourself is a great way to help them learn and get into good habits.
Remember, your skin can still be damaged by harmful rays even when it is not sunny or when you are not getting burnt so you need to protect your skin every day.
Good sun habits
When the sun is strong or you’re at risk of burning:
- Spend time in the shade between 11am and 3pm
- Cover up with a t-shirt, hat and sunglasses
- Use a sunscreen with a protection level of at least SPF 30 and 4 star UVA and UVB protection
- Use your sunscreen generously and reapply regularly.
One of the best ways to protect your skin from the harmful effects of the sun's UV rays is to spend some time in the shade.
You can find or create shade in many different ways. For example:
- Stay under trees and foliage
- Use umbrellas and parasols
- Use canopies and awnings
- Go indoors
- Use tents and shelters
- Wear wide-brimmed hats
- Cover up.
When there's no shade around, the best way to protect your skin from the sun is to wear:
- Loose clothing
- A wide-brimmed hat
- Good quality sunglasses.
The more skin that’s covered by your clothing, the better the protection you’re getting. Look for materials with a close weave, as they will block out the most UV rays. Holding the material up to the light is a good way to see how much light and UV rays will get through.
When some of your clothes get wet, they will stretch and allow more UV rays through to your skin. This is particularly a problem for cotton clothes. A wet cotton t-shirt may only offer half the protection of a dry one.
Hats are great for protecting the face, eyes and head. Choose a wide-brimmed hat for the most protection. A ‘legionnaire’ style hat that has flaps around the ears and back of the neck, also offers good protection.
When choosing sunglasses look for one of the following:
- 'CE Mark' and British Standard (BS EN 1836:1997)
- UV 400 label
- 100% UV protection written on the label or sticker.
Also, make sure that your sunglasses give you protection at the side of the eye – choose wraparound styles.
Understanding UVA and UVB sun radiation
UV radiation is part of the electromagnetic (light) spectrum that reaches the earth from the sun. It is invisible to the naked eye. These wavelengths are classified as UVA, UVB, or UVC.
Most UVC is absorbed by the ozone layer and does not reach the earth.
Both UVA and UVB, however, penetrate the atmosphere and play an important role in:
- Skin cancer
- Premature skin aging
- Eye damage (including cataracts).
They also affect the immune system, reducing your ability to fight off cancer and other illnesses.
Sunscreens will not protect us completely from sun damage on their own. However, they can be useful for protecting the parts of skin we can’t shade or cover. This is why you should use sunscreens together with shade or clothing to avoid getting too much UV exposure.
You should buy sunscreens with a:
- Sun Protection Factor (SPF) of at least 30 (UVB protection)
- High star rating with at least 4 stars (UVA protection)
- UVA protection can also be indicated by the letters ‘UVA’ in a circle which indicates that it meets the EU standard.
Sunscreens with higher factors don’t provide much more protection against UVB radiation. For example, an SPF15 sunscreen filters out 93% of UVB radiation, while an SPF30 sunscreen filters out 96%.
Worryingly, many people burn more frequently when they use higher factors of sunscreen because they stay out in the sun for longer. There is a concern that higher factor sunscreens may lure people into a false sense of security. You should never use sunscreen in order to spend longer in the sun. No sunscreen, no matter how high the factor, can provide 100% protection.
Tips for using sunscreen properly
No sunscreen, whether it’s factor 30 or 50, will give the protection it claims unless you apply it properly.
Make sure you put enough sunscreen on – people often apply much less than they need to, to get the full protection. When your risk of burning is high, make sure that all your exposed skin is thoroughly covered in sunscreen.
Make sure you apply your sunscreen at least 20-30 minutes before going out into the sun.
As a guide this means:
- Around 2 teaspoons of sunscreen if you're just covering your head, arms and neck
- Around 2 tablespoons if you're covering your entire body, while wearing a swimming costume.
Reapply sunscreen regularly- about every 2 hours. It is easily rubbed, sweated or washed off and reapplying helps avoid missing bits of skin.
- Use sunscreen together with shade and clothing to avoiding getting caught out by sunburn.
- Don’t be tempted to spend longer in the sun than you would without sunscreen.
- Apply sunscreen to clean, dry skin.
- Even when sunscreens claim to be ‘water resistant’ or ‘waterproof’, you should reapply them after going in the water, especially if you have toweled dry.
- Don’t store sunscreens in very hot places as extreme heat can ruin their protective chemicals.
- Don’t forget to check the expiry date on your sunscreen. Most sunscreens have a shelf life of 2-3 years, but make sure your sunscreen has not expired before you use it.
Do I need to reapply ‘once-a-day’ sunscreens?
Some sunscreens claim to provide effective protection after just one application. But even with these sunscreens, reapplying regularly is important, because you are more likely to get even coverage and avoid missing bits that may then get burnt.