With Britain in the midst of a heatwave, there's nothing quite like sunbathing in the garden with a cold glass of Pimms'. But without taking the right precautions to reduce your exposure to UV rays, you could be putting yourself at a significant risk of skin cancer (melanoma); the 7th most prevalent form of cancer in the UK.
According to Cancer Research UK, over 85% of melanoma cases in the UK are directly linked to prolonged skin exposure and excessive sunbed use. But even short periods of time in the sun, without adequate protection, can damage the skin and increase your risk of developing skin cancer.
The benefits of sunshine
Of course, exposure to the sun isn't always a bad thing. Sunshine is a source of Vitamin D which helps to manage calcium in the bones and blood. Vitamin D, though technically a pro-hormone which is synthesised by the body, can also reduce the risk of depression and even promote weight loss, provided you are eating a healthy and balanced diet.
There are a lot of myths around the best methods for protecting against and treating sunburn.
- The heat of the sun causes sunburn -
- Sunburn is actually caused by UV radiation. When the UV rays penetrate the skin, they can cause mutations in the DNA of skin cells. As a response, you experience peeling which is the bodies way of getting rid of damaged and mutated cells. The heat you feel actually comes from infrared rays from the sun and doesn't contribute to cell damage.
- Pre-holiday sunbed tan can protect against UV rays -
- It's a common misconception that a pre-holiday tan can protect against sun damage. Getting a tan before going on holiday provides very little protection. If it were a sunscreen, it would offer less protection than an SPF 3 sunscreens. It's also important to mention that if you pre-tan using sunbeds, you could be increasing your chances of developing melanoma by 20%. If you want a pre-holiday tan, opt for fake tan creams and mousses. Be aware that fake tan products do not protect against the sun and other precautionary measures should be taken to minimise your risk of skin damage.
- Sunscreen is all you need -
- Sunscreen does not offer enough protection against the sun. Moreover, it was found that most people don't apply enough sunscreen for it to be effective. While sunscreen can help to block UV rays, it does not provide 100% protection. You should seek shade and clothing for further protection.
- A "healthy tan" -
- There is absolutely nothing healthy about a tan. The darkening of the skin occurs when the cells in our skin creates more melanin to absorb the UV rays, protecting the skin from further damage.
Tips to stay safe
Go into the shade when the sun is at its highest, typically between 11am and 3pm. On a clear day in the UK, you can tell the sun is at its highest when your shadow is shorter than you. Good places to find shade are:
- Underneath trees and foliage
- Tents and gazebos
- Indoor places like shops and bars.
What's the best sunscreen to use?
Use a high factor sunscreen of SPF 30/UVA star 4 or above and apply liberally over exposed skin, especially the face, arms, legs, backs of your hands, ears and neck. It's also vital to top up your sunscreen every 2 hours to ensure that you stay protected. A low SPF sunscreen, such as SPF 15 for example, would be suitable for a short period of exposure to UV rays such as a walk to the shop or hanging out the washing. A higher SPF of 30-50 is more suitable for deliberate and prolonged exposure to the sun.
While sunscreen can offer some protection against the sun, you should control your exposure to the sun and seek shade regularly. Wear sunglasses with 100% UV protection whenever possible and wear loose clothing that covers your legs and arms to reduce the risk of sunburn on your extremities. Sun hats are also a good precautionary measure, protecting your ears, neck, nose and cheeks which are often sensitive to sunburn.
How do I treat sunburn?
If you are already sunburned, there's no point in applying sunscreen after the fact as the damage to the DNA in the skin cells may already have been done. Avoid further sun exposure and take a cold shower or bath to cool the skin and reduce irritation. Apply a lotion like after-sun, hydrocortisone cream, or an Aloe Vera moisturiser to the burn as they can cool the affected area, reduce swelling and redness, and help to heal the skin. If you begin to feel sick after being sunburned then you should consult your GP.
Remember to stay hydrated with plenty of water or natural fruit juices. If you are enjoying a tipple, remember to drink soft drinks or water between them to reduce your risk of heat stroke. Both alcohol and heat in excess can cause your blood vessels to dilate which can result in fainting and sun stroke.
If you are unsure whether you should apply sunscreen, download a weather app for your smartphone or tablet that offers a UV index. Apps that show this index include The Weather Channel, BBC Weather and Met Office Weather Forecast. By monitoring these apps, you can minimise your exposure to harmful UV rays. If the UV index reads above 3, precautions should be taken to protect your skin.
Whether you're spending your holiday in the exotic islands of the Caribbean or in the picturesque British countryside, it's important to protect your skin against the harmful UV rays of the sun this summer.