Why should I worry about Sun Safety?
The sun is well known to increase the risk of skin cancer. Whilst regular sunbathing can increase risks, even one episode of sunburn could spark the formation of a cancer. There is currently much concern from doctors, as the numbers of skin cancers seen each year seems to be increasing. Basal Cell Carcinoma is now the commonest form of cancer in humans, and it is estimated that there are over 100,000 new skin cancers diagnosed every year in the UK alone. In the USA, this number is about 600,000 new cases 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 will not know you have had too much sun until you form a cancer.
I tan easily though, so aren't I safe?
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 and could therefore cause a cancer to grow. So, whether you tan easily or not, you are at greater risk of forming skin cancer by tanning or burning.
Also, it doesn't matter if you 'tan slowly' or not. 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 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?
No. 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 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 reduce my risks of getting skin cancer?
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 (15+) 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
Remember, the next time you or your child get a tan or burn could be the final spark your skin needs to form a cancer.
Other SurgeryWise articles
You may also be interested to read our articles on actinic keratosis, basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, melanoma or moles.
The information provided is as a guide only. If you have any concerns about a skin growth, seek medical advice immediately. Please also read our disclaimer