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Skin cancer prevention

Men and woman discussing skin cancer

This page is about how you can reduce your risk of skin cancer. If you have had a skin cancer removed in the past, you are at higher than average risk of getting another one. So you need to be extra careful in the sun. You can find the following information

 

A quick guide to what's on this page

Some SunSmart advice

Sunburn can increase your risk of skin cancer. It is important to protect your skin when the sun is strong. Remember to

  • Spend time in the shade between 11am and 3pm
  • Wear a T shirt, hat and sunglasses
  • Use sunscreen with at least SPF 15 (the higher the better), with good UVA protection

Both UVA and UVB can cause skin cancer. The sun protection factor (SPF) tells you the amount of protection the sunscreen gives against UVB. For UVA protection, you should see a star rating of up to 5 stars on UK sunscreens. The higher the star rating the better. Some sunscreens may have a symbol of a circle with the letters UVA inside. This is a European mark and shows the sunscreen has good UVA protection.

Sunbeds are not a safe alternative to tanning outdoors.

Checking for skin cancers

It is important that you make a habit of checking your own skin, especially if you are at a high risk of getting skin cancer or have had treatment for a previous skin cancer. If you find any changes in your skin that happen over a few weeks or months you should get your GP to look at them.
 

CR PDF Icon You can view and print the quick guides for all the pages in the about skin cancer section.

 

 

Some SunSmart advice

Sunburn can be painful. It is also a clear sign that your skin has been damaged by too much ultraviolet (UV) radiation. Over time this damage can build up and lead to skin cancer.

It is important to avoid getting burned and to protect your skin when the sun is at its most intense. Remember to

  • Spend time in the shade between 11am and 3pm
  • Wear a T shirt, hat and sunglasses
  • Use sunscreen with at least SPF 15 (the higher the better), with good UVA protection (the more stars the better)

Sunbeds are not a safe alternative to tanning outdoors. The intensity of some of the UV rays they give off can be 10 to 15 times higher than that of the midday sun.

People most at risk of developing skin cancer include those who have

  • Fair skin
  • Lots of moles or freckles
  • Red or fair hair
  • Had skin cancer before
  • A family history of skin cancer 

Cancer Research UK's SunSmart website has lots of information about protecting you and your children in the UK and abroad.

 

Spending time in the shade

One of the best ways to protect your skin from the sun's UV rays is to spend some time in the shade when the sun is strong. During the UK summer, the sun's UV rays are usually strongest between 11am and 3pm. It's important to be especially careful about protecting your skin from sunburn during these hours. Trees, umbrellas, canopies or buildings can all provide shade and help you protect your skin.

 

Covering up in the sun

If there's no shade, the best way to protect your skin is with clothing. At least wear a T shirt, hat and sunglasses. Remember that the sun will reflect from the surface of water. So you can still burn if you are in or near water.

The amount of protection you get from your clothes varies depending on the type of material. The closer the weave of the fabric, the more likely it is to keep the sun off. Thin, loose weave fabrics such as cheesecloth give very little protection. Close weave cotton (T shirt material) gives quite good protection. When some fabrics get wet they can stretch and allow more UV rays through to your skin. 

Wear a hat with a wide brim for the best protection. Babies and children should always wear wide brimmed hats in the sun. Baseball caps may look good, but they leave the back of your neck and ears completely exposed. Much better is the foreign legion type, with a cloth flap that covers the back of your neck. These are now widely available for babies and young children.

Don't forget to protect your eyes. Wear good quality, wrap around sunglasses. Wraparounds stop the sun from getting in at the sides. Buy these for children too – toy sunglasses can do more harm than good. When choosing sunglasses, look out for

  • The CE or British Standard mark (BS EN 1836: 1997)
  • A UV 400 label
  • A label saying the glasses give 100% UV protection
 

Sunscreens

Sunscreens can be useful for protecting our skin from the sun's rays. But they will not protect us completely from sun damage on their own. This is why we recommend using sunscreens together with shade or clothing to avoid getting sunburn. You should never use sunscreen in order to spend longer in the sun.

 

What to buy

The sun protection factor or SPF tells you the amount of protection the sunscreen gives against UVB radiation. Sunscreens are all tested the same way. So it is the level of protection they give you against the sun that matters more than the price. National guidelines recommend you use at least factor 15 (the higher the better). 

Choose a sunscreen that has good protection against UVA rays as well as a high SPF. This is because both UVB and UVA rays can cause skin cancer. In the UK, the level of UVA protection might be shown in one of two ways

Star rating

You should see a star rating of up to 5 stars on UK sunscreens. The higher the star rating, the better. But the actual UVA protection also depends on the SPF of the sunscreen. For example, an SPF 25 with 3 stars may screen out more UVA overall than an SPF 10 with 4 stars.

A symbol

A symbol with the letters UVA inside a circle is a European marking. This means that the UVA protection is at least one third of the SPF value.

 

Using sunscreen

Don't assume that because you have put on sunscreen, you can stay out without burning. No sunscreen, no matter how high the factor, can provide 100% protection. And no sunscreen, whether it's 15 or 50, will provide the protection it claims unless it is applied properly. Therefore it is very important that you put on sunscreen generously and regularly.

Research has shown that people apply much less sunscreen than they need to. And worryingly, many people burn more frequently when they use higher factors of sunscreen because they stay out in the sun for longer. There is a concern that higher factor sunscreens may lure people into a false sense of security. So on days when the sun is strong, don't use sunscreen to stay out longer in the sun, and use shade and clothing to protect your skin as well as sunscreen.

Do check the use by date. Most sunscreens have a shelf life of 2 to 3 years, and will last about 12 to 18 months after opening. So it is usually fine to use last year's, but not a bottle from 5 years ago!

You should put your sunscreen on before you go out in the sun so the cream can be absorbed. Then put on another layer to make sure you haven't missed any bits. Put it on before anything else so it is next to your skin. If needed you should apply moisturiser, insect repellant or make up afterwards. This is particularly important if you are using an organic (chemical) sunscreen.

To get the level of protection stated on the bottle, you need to put enough on. For an average sized adult, you will need about 2 teaspoonfuls for your head, neck and arms, or 2 tablespoons if you are wearing a swimsuit.

If you are outdoors in strong sun, you also need to apply sunscreen regularly. Sunscreen is easily rubbed, washed or sweated off, so also reapply after showering, changing clothes or swimming - even if your sunscreen says it is waterproof.

 

Vitamin D and the sun

We all need some sunshine to make enough vitamin D to build and maintain strong bones. But it is not possible to give a one size fits all recommendation on how much sun is needed as this depends on a number of different factors. Enjoying the sun safely while taking care not to burn should help most people get a good balance. You do not need to sunbathe and should not have to redden or burn your skin to make enough vitamin D. And spending longer in the sun won't help you make more. Once you have healthy levels of Vitamin D, the body just gets rid of any extra.

Most of us will make enough vitamin D during the summer to last the winter. But some people are more at risk of low vitamin D levels, such as those with darker skin, people who wear clothing that fully covers them, pregnant women and older people. There is more about vitamin D on our SunSmart website. If you are worried that you may be lacking vitamin D, talk to your GP.

 

Protecting children from skin cancer

Babies and young children have delicate skin. All children, no matter whether they tan easily or not, should be protected from the sun. Children with fair or red hair, pale eyes or freckles are at most risk. Keep babies under 6 months out of direct sunlight, especially around midday.

You can find tips for protecting children in the sun, and information for schools, on our SunSmart website.

 

Checking for skin cancers

It is important that you make a habit of checking your own skin for any changes. This is especially important if you are at a high risk of getting skin cancer or have had treatment for a previous skin cancer. If you find any changes in your skin that happen over a few weeks or months you should get your GP to look at them.

Look at the page on symptoms and risk factors in this section and make sure you know if you are at increased risk and what to look out for.

If your GP is worried that a skin abnormality may be a skin cancer they will refer you to a skin specialist. How quickly you get a referral will depend on the type of skin cancer your GP thinks you may have. Depending on local NHS services you may be referred to a rapid access suspected skin cancer clinic. There are guidelines for GPs so they know when to refer someone with a suspected skin cancer to a specialist. You can look at these guidelines for seeing a specialist in this section.

There are private walk in skin clinics in the UK. But before you pay for this type of service, do make sure you know exactly what method of screening they use and whether it is reliable. Check if the people carrying out the screening are medically qualified because sometimes they are not. If you want a skin change checked then it is best to see your GP.

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Updated: 4 March 2013