Health A-Z - Conditions and treatments

Sun safety

  • Protect your skin and eyes in the sun



    Skin cancer is one of the most common cancers in the UK, and too much sun can increase your risk. Exposure to sunlight can also affect your eyes. Here’s how to protect your skin and reduce the risks to your eyes.


    In 2010, around 100,000 people were diagnosed with skin cancer in the UK. More than 12,000 of these cancers were malignant melanoma, the most serious type of skin cancer. Each year, around 2,200 people die from skin cancer.


    Skin cancers are caused by damage from the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays. Protecting the skin from the sun can help prevent these cancers.


    How does the sun damage skin?


    UV rays penetrate deep into the skin and damage cells. These cells are then at risk of becoming cancerous. You can’t feel UV damaging your skin and it happens even when the sun doesn’t feel hot.


    Getting sunburnt causes the top layers of skin to release chemicals that make blood vessels swell and leak fluids. Skin turns red and feels hot and painful, and severe sunburn can lead to swelling and blisters.


    “Sunburn is dangerous at any age, but it's especially harmful in children and young people,” says Katy Scammell of Cancer Research UK’s SunSmart campaign. “Sunburn in childhood can greatly increase your risk of developing skin cancer later in life.”


    After you've been sunburnt, the skin peels to get rid of damaged cells. Eventually, it will heal and look healthy, but permanent damage may have been done. Some experts believe that just one episode of blistering sunburn before the age of 20 can double your chance of getting malignant melanoma.


    Who's at risk?


    Skin cancer can affect anyone, but people most at risk have:


    • fair skin that burns in strong sun
    • red or fair hair
    • a lot of moles or freckles
    • a personal or family history of skin cancer
    • already had sunburn, especially when young

    People with naturally brown or black skin are less likely to get skin cancer as darker skin has some protection against UV rays. However, skin cancer can still occur.


    Be safe in the sun


    Sun damage doesn't just happen when you're on holiday in the sun. It can happen when you’re not expecting it, for example when you go for a walk or sit in your garden.


    “Sun protection is something you need to be aware of every day in the summer,” says Scammel. "Whether on holiday or at home, you can protect yourself by following the SunSmart messages.”


    • Spend time in the shade between 11am and 3pm.
    • Make sure you never burn.
    • Aim to cover up with a T-shirt, hat and sunglasses.
    • Remember to take extra care with children.
    • Then use factor 15+ sunscreen.

    Report mole changes or unusual skin growths to your GP.


    Always take special care of children’s skin. The best way to do this is to cover them up and keep them in the shade.


    Sunbeds are not safe


    Sunbeds are not a safe alternative to lying outside in the sun. Skin will still be exposed to harmful UV rays. Health risks linked to sunbeds and other UV tanning equipment include:


    • skin cancer
    • premature ageing of skin
    • sunburnt skin
    • dryness and itching
    • bumpy rashes
    • eye irritation
    • cataracts

    "Using sunbeds before the age of 35 increases your risk of skin cancer by up to 75%," says Scammell. "Sunbeds also accelerate the skin’s natural ageing process."


    It is now illegal for people under 18 years old to use sunbeds, including in tanning salons, beauty salons, leisure centres, gyms and hotels. Find out more in Are sunbeds safe?


    Do not use sunbeds or other UV tanning equipment if:


    • you have been sunburnt in the past, particularly in childhood
    • you have fair skin that burns easily
    • you have a large number of freckles or red hair
    • you have a large number of moles
    • you're taking medication that makes your skin more sensitive to sunlight
    • anyone in your family has had skin cancer in the past

    Protecting your eyes


    Long-term exposure to sunlight increases the risk of a type of cataract and is also linked to pterygia (growths on the surface of the eye).


    Simon Kelly, of the Royal College of Ophthalmologists, warns that sun can burn the eyes too.


    "Over-exposure to ultraviolet light, such as a day at the beach without proper eye protection, can cause a temporary but painful burn to the surface of the eye, similar to sunburn on the skin," he says.


    He adds that reflected sunlight from snow and water, and artificial light from sunbeds, is particularly dangerous. Always avoid looking directly at the sun. "Staring directly at the sun can permanently scar the retina, the area at the back of the eye responsible for vision," he says.


    Another risk to eyes is skin cancer, which can affect the eyelids and area around the eyes. Long-term exposure to the sun can increase this risk.


    Wearing a wide-brimmed hat can reduce the amount of UV rays that reach your face and eyes.


    What to look for in sunglasses


    Sunglasses can also offer protection, but not all of them are adequate. When you’re shopping for sunglasses, choose a pair that has one of the following:


    • the CE Mark and British Standard (BS EN ISO 12312-1:2013)
    • a UV 400 label
    • a statement that the sunglasses offer 100% UV protection

    Think about the sides of your eyes, and consider sunglasses with wide or wraparound arms.


    In the UK, 2,000 people a year die from malignant melanoma, and the number is increasing. An expert and members of the public talk about how to stay safe in the sun.



    Page last reviewed: 02/05/2013

    Next review due: 02/05/2015

  • Child safety in the sun


    Exposing your child to too much sun may increase their risk of skin cancer later in life. Sunburn can also cause considerable pain and discomfort in the short term.


    Tips to protect your child from sunburn


    • Encourage your child to play in the shade – for example, under trees – especially between 11am and 3pm, when the sun is at its strongest.
    • Keep babies under the age of six months out of direct sunlight, especially around midday.
    • Cover exposed parts of your child's skin with sunscreen, even on cloudy or overcast days. Use one that has a sun protection factor (SPF) of 15 or above and is effective against UVA and UVB. Don't forget to apply it to their shoulders, nose, ears, cheeks and the tops of their feet. Reapply often throughout the day.
    • Be especially careful to protect your child's shoulders and the back of their neck when they're playing, as these are the most common areas for sunburn.
    • Cover your child up in loose, baggy cotton clothes, such as an oversized T-shirt with sleeves.
    • Get your child to wear a floppy hat with a wide brim that shades their face and neck.
    • Protect your child's eyes with sunglasses that meet the British Standard (BSEN 1836:2005) and carry the "CE" mark (check the label or ask the manufacturer).
    • If your child is swimming, use a waterproof sunblock of factor 15 or above. Reapply after towelling.

    Further information on toddler sun safety




    Page last reviewed: 13/01/2014

    Next review due: 13/01/2016

  • Sun safety Q&A 


    It's important to protect your and your children's skin in the sun to avoid sunburn and heat exhaustion.


    What sun protection factor (SPF) should I use?


    Use sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 15. The higher the SPF, the better. Go for broad-spectrum sunscreens, which protect against harmful UVA and UVB rays. Make sure the product is not past its expiry date. Most sunscreens have a shelf life of two to three years.


    What is broad spectrum and the star-rating?


    Broad-spectrum products provide protection against the sun’s UVB and UVA rays. The sun protection factor, or SPF, is a measurement of the amount of UVB protection. The higher the number, the greater the protection. In the UK, UVA protection is measured with a star rating. Sunscreens has from 0 to 5 stars. The higher the number of stars, the greater the protection.


    How long can I stay in the sun?


    Don’t spend any longer in the sun than you would without sunscreen. Sunscreen should not be used as an excuse to stay out in the sun. Instead, it offers protection when exposure is unavoidable. The summer sun is most damaging to your skin in the middle of the day. Spend time in the shade between 11am and 3pm, under umbrellas, trees, canopies or indoors.


    Should I reapply sunscreen if I swim?


    Water washes off sunscreen and the cooling effect of the water can make you think you're not getting burned. Water also reflects UV rays, increasing your exposure. Even "waterproof" sunscreens should be reapplied after going in the water.


    What should I do if I get sunburn?


    Painkillers, such as paracetamol or ibuprofen, will ease the pain by helping to reduce inflammation caused by sunburn. Sponge sore skin with cool water, then apply soothing after sun or calamine lotion. If you feel unwell or the skin swells badly or blisters, seek medical help. Stay out of the sun until all signs of redness have gone.


    Are children more at risk of sunburn?


    Young skin is delicate and very easily damaged by the sun. Use at least a factor 15 sunscreen and choose a broad-spectrum brand that has a four- or five-star rating. Apply it to areas not protected by clothing, such as the face, ears, feet and backs of hands. Choose sunscreens that are formulated for children and babies' skin, as these are less likely to irritate their skin.


    My child has eczema. What sunscreen should I use?


    Some sunscreens may aggravate eczema. Check the label for any ingredients that you know your child is allergic to. Test any new sunscreen on a small area before applying it to the whole body. Put on your child’s emollient and steroids first then put the sun protection cream on 30 minutes later. Remember to put more sun protection cream on regularly throughout the day and especially after swimming.


    What are the symptoms of heat exhaustion


    Heat exhaustion occurs when the body cannot lose heat fast enough. If it's not treated quickly, it can lead to heat stroke, which is a much more dangerous condition. Signs of heat exhaustion include faintness, dizziness, palpitations, nausea, headaches, low blood pressure, tiredness, confusion, loss of appetite and hallucinations.


    What should I do if someone has signs of heat exhaustion?


    Get them to rest in a cool place, ideally a room with air conditioning. Give them plenty of water. Avoid alcohol or caffeine as this can increase levels of dehydration. Cool their skin with cold water. Use a shower or cold bath to cool them down or, if this is not possible, wet flannels and face cloths in water and apply to their skin. Loosen any unnecessary clothing and make sure that the person gets plenty of ventilation. Monitor their condition closely.


    Should I cover up my mole when I’m in the sun?


    If you have lots of moles or freckles, you're more likely to develop skin cancer, so you need to take extra care. Avoid getting caught out by sunburn. Use shade, clothing and sunscreen with an SPF of at least 15 to protect yourself. Keep an eye out for changes to your skin and report these to your doctor without delay. Skin cancer is much easier to treat if it is found early. Use the mole self-assessment tool to see whether you could have a cancerous mole.



    Page last reviewed: 26/05/2014

    Next review due: 26/05/2016