Am I at risk of sunburn?

Happy friends chat in the sun

Am I at risk of sunburn?

Your risk of sunburn depends on 2 things. How sun-sensitive your skin is, and how strong the UV rays are you’re exposed to. Different people will have a different risk of sunburn on the same day, so it’s a good idea to know when your risk is high, so you can protect your skin.

Do I have to worry about sunburn in the UK?

Most people think about sunburn as something that happens on holiday or in hot, sunny places. But in a recent survey more than a third of people admitted the last time they were sunburnt was in the UK. And beware of getting burnt while you’re out and about, rather than deliberately 'sunbathing'. You may be outdoors watching sport, doing the gardening, walking round town or just sitting in the park.

During the UK summer the sun's UV rays are strongest between 11am and 3pm. Be especially careful about protecting your skin from sunburn during these hours, and spend time in the shade.

Although 11am to 3pm is when the sun’s UV rays are strongest in the UK, this can differ depending on where in the world you happen to be. When travelling abroad, a simple way to find out when the sun’s rays are at their strongest is to look at your shadow – if it is shorter than your height, this means that the sun’s UV rays are strong.

Other things that affect the amount of UV rays are the:

  • Time of year - the highest risk months in the UK are May to September. In Australia, the sun’s rays are strongest from November to February. Near the equator, there are strong UV rays all year round.
  • Altitude - UV rays are stronger the higher you go. So skiers and mountaineers can easily get caught out.
  • Cloud cover - even on overcast skies, 30-40% of UV will still penetrate through cloud cover. For example, if half the sky is covered in clouds, 80% of UV still shines through.
  • Reflection - about 75% of harmful rays are reflected back from snow, 15% from sand, 10% from concrete and 5-10% from water (depending on how choppy it is).

When do I need to protect my skin?

Skin type and UV index

The UV index is a useful tool that tells us how strong the sun’s UV rays are and when we might be at risk of burning. The higher the value, the greater the risk of sunburn and the less time it takes to damage your skin.

The UV index varies depending on where you are in the world, the time of year, the weather, the time of day and how high up you are compared to sea level. The UV index is not always highest when it’s hottest.

By knowing your skin type and using the UV index, you can work out when you need to protect yourself from the sun.

Experts have identified 6 different skin types. Colour and tone vary a lot within each skin type, but it is a useful guide. Choose the description that most closely matches your hair and eye colour and what would happen to your skin in strong sun if it were not protected. Then match your hand colour to the photo. This will tell you what your skin type is.


Type I

Often burns, rarely tans. Tends to have freckles, red or fair hair, blue or green eyes.

Type II

Usually burns, sometimes tans. Tends to have light hair, blue or brown eyes.

Type III

Sometimes burns, usually tans. Tends to have brown hair and eyes.

Type IV

Rarely burns, often tans. Tends to have dark brown eyes and hair.

Type V

Naturally brown skin. Often has dark brown eyes and hair.

Type VI

Naturally black-brown skin. Usually has black-brown eyes and hair.



Check out this table of the different skin types and the UV index to see when you might be at risk of burning.

Between October and March in the UK, the UV index is normally lower than 3, so even people with fair skin shouldn’t need to protect themselves.

You can check UV index forecasts for different parts of the UK at the Met Office website, and on many weather forecasts.

Shadow rule

Another handy tip to help you work out when the sun might be strong is the ‘shadow rule’. It’s simple and especially useful if you don’t have access to the UV index for the day, but it can’t reflect your skin type and individual risk of burning. All you need to do is to look at your shadow – if it is shorter than your height this means that the sun’s UV rays are strong.

During these times you may need to protect yourself from sunburn.

Resources for sun protection campaigns and schools

Two women chatting joyfully in the sunLearn more about our sun protection campaigns and sun safety at work.

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