Sun safety & tanning

Picture of being safe in the sun

Sun safety & tanning

Staying safe in the sun is important – we discuss how to enjoy the sun in a safe way in our overview

Why should I worry about Sun Safety?

The sun is well known to increase the risk of skin cancer, making sun safety incredibly important. Whilst regular sunbathing can increase risks, even one episode of sunburn could potentially spark the formation of a skin cancer. There is currently much concern from doctors, as the numbers of skin cancers seen each year seems to be increasing rapidly. Basal Cell Carcinoma is now the commonest form of cancer in humans, with estimates of up to 200,000 new skin cancers being diagnosed every year in the UK alone, and over 3 million per year in the USA. The incidence is increasing by about 10% per year.

Worse still, there is a time lag for forming skin cancer – people that form certain types of skin cancer may have been exposed to strong sunlight many years ago, sometimes 30 or 40 years previously. This means that you may not know you have had too much sun until a skin cancer forms.

I tan easily though, so aren't I safe in the sun?

People that tan very easily and rarely burn do seem to have slightly less risks of skin cancer formation than those that easily burn. A tan, though, means that skin damage has been done (the skin gets darker in response to sun damage) and could therefore cause a skin cancer to grow. So, whether you tan easily or not, you are never ‘sun safe’, and will be at greater risk of forming skin cancer by tanning or burning.

Also, ‘tanning slowly’ is not a safe way forward. A tan is a tan, and means damage has been done.

It is thought there is also a genetic factor involved in skin cancer, so some people can get lots of sun without ever getting any problems, whilst others may only need a small amount of sun exposure to cause that ‘spark’ towards skin cancer formation. Unfortunately, you may only know which category you fall into once a skin cancer has formed.

Are younger people less likely to get skin cancer?

Overall, skin cancer increases with age, being most common in those over 60. Melanoma, however, is one of the main causes for death in the under 30s.

It is also thought that melanoma risks may be increased by getting sunburn as a child, and even one episode of sunburn can lead to melanoma forming some years later. Young children also burn very easily, so it is important to make sure your child stays safe in the sun.

Aren't sunbeds safe?

A number of authorities and most doctors agree that sunbed use significantly increases your chances of getting skin cancer.

What other risks are there?

As well as increasing your chances of getting skin cancer, long-term sun exposure can cause other skin growths, premature ageing, formation of skin blemishes and freckles, and a dry leathery look to the skin.

But I thought we need sunlight to form Vitamin D?

Vitamin D is an important element that is used for various processes in your body including regulation of calcium. One of the sources of Vitamin D is from the skin, which makes the vitamin when exposed to sunlight. Much focus has been put on Vitamin D recently, and many people have increased their sun exposure to increase their body’s Vitamin D. The amount of sun exposure needed, though, is minimal; about 10-15 minutes per day is thought to be enough, and is gained by normal daily activities. Certainly you shouldn’t be in the sun enough to get a tan or sunburn.

Most doctors believe that any extra Vitamin D should be gained by having a balanced diet (it is present in many foods) or by taking simple supplements, as increasing sun exposure is too great a risk.

But I feel healthy when I sunbathe......

Whilst people usually feel healthier when lying in the sun, studies have shown that the immune system can actually be depressed by sun exposure. So although you may feel healthier whilst lying in the sun, you may actually be making yourself less able to fight infections and illnesses.

So what can I do to improve my sun safety?

Whilst the risks can never be reduced to zero, you can reduce your risks greatly with some very simple steps:

  • Stay out of the sun, especially between 11am and 3pm, when it is most strong
  • Wear high factor sun cream (25+) if you need to go out in the sun (eg sports)
  • Read the instructions on your sun lotion carefully and apply generous amounts
  • Reapply sun lotion regularly and especially after swimming or towel drying
  • Wear sun-protective clothing such as long-sleeved shirts and hats
  • Never get sunburnt, and keep children out of the sun

This information is for general information only. If you have any concerns about your health or are considering any treatments, you should seek advice from a healthcare specialist

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