It’s essential to protect your skin and your hair in the the sun. Here’s our guide on how to stay safe.
Unfortunately, with vitamin D a complicating factor, the sun-safe advice has become confusing. We need to get enough sunlight without sun cream to replenish our vitamin D resources, but we must always use sunscreen.
How to strike the balance?
The truth is, a few minutes every day without sun cream during the UK summer is enough – less if you’re fair skinned, more if you’re darker. The rest of the time, it’s better to protect yourself.
With that in mind, we spoke to Dr Dev Shah, consultant dermatologist at One Stop Doctors based in Hemel Hempstead, for an authoritative guide to protecting your skin properly in the sun.
What is melanoma and what causes it?
Melanoma is a skin cancer that arises from the pigment-producing cells (melanocytes) found within the upper layers of the skin. Melanocytes are quite fragile cells and are there to protect us from sunlight and prevent UV light causing damage to our cells. If too much UV light is encountered, the melanocytes cannot cope and they are themselves damaged, and develop DNA mutations. Once cells develop irreparable DNA damage, they grow abnormally or in a cancerous way. They can bud off and spread to various organs such as the lungs or brain and ultimately lead to death.
The main risk factors for developing melanoma are:
- A very fair skin with light eyes or red hair
- Sunbed use (sunbeds are completely banned in Brazil and Australia) or blistering episodes of sunburn as a child
- High numbers of moles – usually more than 100 on your whole body (count the number of moles on one arm. If you have more than 11, you are likely to have more than 100 on your body)
- A genetic predisposition or family history.
Sun cream: what quality and how often to apply it?
We recognise that being outdoors in sunlight has various health benefits (exercise/lower blood pressure), so we want people to keep enjoying the outdoors but to be sensible.
When we talk about protecting yourself from the sun, sunscreen is one part of this process. We also recommend wearing long-sleeved and appropriate clothing, using a hat and avoiding the most intense sunlight between 11am and 2pm.
When using a sunscreen it’s important to choose a cream with an SPF of 30 or more with a five-star UVA rating, or a symbol with UVA written within a circle.
Sunscreen comes in many different forms. If you want to look less shiny there are non-glossy matt creams, while for a more moisturising suncream you should go for oils.
The main mistake people make is the frequency of application. Terms such as ‘24hr protection’ and ‘all day long protection’ are misleading. If you’re in direct sunlight, you should be reapplying your sunscreen every one to two hours. If you’re exercising and sweating or swimming you should be reapplying it every half an hour.
Aim to cover your whole body so that the skin feels ‘tacky’; if you don’t put enough on don’t worry too much – if you’re applying it frequently you’ll eventually cover all of your skin.
When using a sunscreen you must consider it as a ‘sieve’. In other words it’s not a ‘block’, it’s more a filter that still allows light through to the skin. Using a sunscreen doesn’t mean you can stay out in direct sunlight for an infinite amount of time.
Do all clothes protect you from the sun or are some better than others?
If you hold your clothes up to the sun and you can see light coming through, they are definitely not protective. Thicker clothing is far better than thin clothing. All clothing will offer some level of
protection, but this will be variable so sunscreen should still be applied. You can buy clothing with an SPF factor and this is often the best type of clothing to fully protect your skin. Children especially need full-body suits with hats that have an SPF 50 rating when in intense direct sunlight, or swimming, in order to protet
In general we would recommend wearing longsleeved loose clothing and trying to avoid the most intense periods of sunlight between the hours of 11am and 2pm.
Is there a safe way to tan?
In a word, no. Unfortunately tanning means sun damage, which may increase your risk of developing further skin cancer. It is also important to note that tanning and sun exposure is the leading cause of premature ageing of the skin.
The safest way to get a darker complexion and skin tone is to use a spray-on tan. When you’ve achieved the colour you want with a spray-on tan, you should still use a high factor sunblock in direct sunlight.
What changes should you be aware of in your skin, and what should you do if you’re at all worried?
First, we recommend that people at least look at their skin regularly. It’s important that people know what their bodies look like at baseline. Look at your back and buttocks, checking every nook and cranny so you know what you’re starting off with – or get your partner to help. This way, if you develop new moles (or if moles are changing) you’ll know because you knew what they looked like before.
We also recommend that people take photographs of their bodies at baseline. Then they can refer back to these photos every three to four months, specifically looking out for new or changing moles.
These are the signs you should look out for:
A is for Asymmetry – moles that are asymmetrical
B is for Borders – scalloped or blurred
C is for multiple Colours – red, black, brown (two or more colour types are worrying)
D is for Diameter (greater than 6mm)
E is for Evolution (itching, pain, growing).
It’s best to be checked by someone who regularly treats skin cancer and understands how to differentiate cancer from benign moles, without always cutting the mole out. If moles suddenly become itchy red or are painful or simply attract one’s attention it’s wise to have them checked.
Finally, are there any other tips you can offer?
There are some great apps that can help you keep track of changes in your skin – but be aware of apps that claim to diagnose melanoma as we feel there is not enough evidence of safety surrounding these.
Instead, try one of the apps where you can document and encrypt images of your body to take to your doctor or dermatologist to show them changes in your skin. They can then understand the changes, should there be any.