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 just happens on holiday or in hot, sunny places. But the sun is often strong enough to burn at home in the UK. And it doesn’t have to be a sunny day either- UV can be strong even on cloudy days.  

It’s important to 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 British Summer Time the sun's UV rays are strongest between 11am and 3pm. Be especially careful about protecting your skin from sunburn during these hours by seeking shade, covering up with clothing, a hat and sunglasses and using sunscreen on the parts you can’t cover.

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. 

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

  • Time of year - the highest risk months in the UK are April to September. 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 – over 90% of UV can pass through light cloud.
  • Reflection – up to 80% of UV rays are reflected back from snow, 15% from sand, 10% from concrete and up to 30% from water (depending on how choppy it is).

How do I know if my skin’s sun-sensitive?

Anyone can develop skin cancer, but there are some characteristics that mean people are likely to have a higher risk of skin cancer, and need to take more care in the sun.

In general people who have one or more of the following are at more risk:

  • skin that burns easily
  • light or fair coloured skin, hair, or eyes
  • lots of moles or freckles
  • a history of sunburn
  • a personal or family history of skin cancer

People with naturally dark brown or black skin burn less easily and have a lower risk of skin cancer. But people with darker skin can still develop skin cancers, especially types not related to UV, for example on non-pigmented parts of the body like the soles of the feet.

You’re the best person to know how your skin reacts in the sun. The more easily you get sunburnt, the more careful you need to be. Remember, you don’t need to peel – if your skin’s gone red or pink in the sun, that’s sunburn, and it’s dangerous. For people with darker skin it may feel irritated, tender or itchy. 

When do I need to protect my skin?

Graphic showing sunburn risk at different UV levels. Think about protection when the UV Index is 3 or more

The UV index 

When the UV Index is 3 or more, the sun is strong enough to cause sunburn so take care.

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 is not always highest when it’s hottest. Between October and March in the UK, the UV index is normally lower than 3. At UV levels below 3, people are unlikely to be harmed by UV.

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 is strong is the ‘shadow rule’. It’s simple and especially useful if you don’t have access to the UV index for the day, and it works anywhere in the world. 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. So that’s when you’re more likely to burn and need to take care and protect your skin. Especially if you get sunburnt easily.

Graphic showing that the sun is strongest when your shadow is shorter than you

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