What everyone should know about staying sun smart

Around a century ago, it was common for people higher up the social hierarchy to look down on people with tanned skin. At that time, sun tans were the often the result of having the hard, laborious life of the working classes, but in 1923, that all changed. That was the year Coco Channel returned from the Riviera with a golden-brown complexion, giving birth to a new fashion, which is still going strong to this day.

Unfortunately, as the popularity of sun tans grew, so too did the prevalence of skin cancer, so much so that it is now the most common form of cancer in the world. There are three main types of skin cancer:

Of the three, malignant melanoma is by far the most serious as it is life-threatening and can often spread to the lungs, liver and brain. Non-melanoma skin cancers generally develop slowly, caused by a lifetime's exposure to the sun, while malignant melanoma develops quickly after short, intensive bursts of sunlight, especially if it has caused sunburn. Skin cancers of all types though have a common factor, which is an excessive exposure to the ultraviolet light in sunlight or tanning devices.

Ultraviolet light

Our skin can be damaged by two main types of ultraviolet light, which are UVA and UVB. UVA causes our skin to age prematurely, while UVB is the cause of both sunburn and skin cancer.

It is common to see it suggested otherwise by tanning device manufacturers, but neither UVA or UVB are safe for our skin. Both can damage the DNA inside our skin cells, and the longer this exposure goes on for, the greater the risk of skin cancer becomes.

It is also worth pointing out that your skin doesn't need to be peeling or painfully red for it to be damaged; just being sunburned is enough to damage your DNA. However, if you have started to peel, it is because your skin cells have become so damaged and potentially cancerous that your body has had to destroy them to try and protect itself.

If you get seriously sunburned once every two years, your risk of developing a malignant melanoma can triple. The best way of reducing this risk is by using both avoidance and protection, and here are our suggestions for staying smart in the sun.

To stay safe while out and about:

  • Try to stay out of the more intense midday sun as much as possible between 11.00 am and 3.00 pm
  • Stick to shaded areas as much as possible whilst you're out and about
  • Remember that up to 80% of the ultraviolet rays in sunlight can pass straight through light clouds
  • Remember also that water, snow, sand and concrete can also reflect up to 80% of ultraviolet rays right back at you, especially at high altitudes
  • It is particularly important that children avoid getting sunburned, as young children who have been severely sunburned are at a significantly increased risk of developing skin cancer in later life.

What clothing should I wear?

  • Wear a wide-brimmed hat when you're out in the sun to shade your head, face and neck
  • Protect your skin with sun-safe clothing. Several brands market clothing based on their protection factor, so look for labels indicating the Ultraviolet Protection Factor or UPF
  • Wear wrap-around sunglasses with an ultraviolet protection rating of at least UV400 to protect your eyes.

Sunscreens

  • Always use sunscreens with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 30
  • Anything above an SPF of 50 will provide minimal extra protection
  • Sunscreens routinely protect against UVB radiation but not always UVA so make sure you check for ingredients such as zinc oxide, titanium dioxide, avobenzone, ecamsule and oxybenzone. Sunscreens with both UVA and UVB protection may be labelled as multi spectrum, broad spectrum, or UVA/UVB protection
  • UVA protection is really important because, although standard UVB protection will protect you from burning, your skin will still be exposed to UVA radiation
  • Apply your sunscreen to all exposed areas around 20 minutes before going out and re-apply at least every two hours, especially if you're swimming in the meantime
  • Apply it thickly - most people apply sunscreen at less than half of the thickness than that which the sunscreen's SPF rating is tested at.
  • If you currently use sunbeds and other tanning devices, you should be aware there is no way of making them safe. They will damage your skin and vastly increase your risk of developing skin cancer, so the best bet is to stop using them immediately.