Am I at risk of sunburn?

  • Your risk of sunburn depends on how sun-sensitive your skin is and how strong the UV rays are you’re exposed to.
  • Tools such as the UV index and the shadow rule can tell you when the sun’s UV rays are strong, and when your risk of sunburn may be high.

​Sunburn doesn’t just happen on holiday or in hot, sunny places. The sun is often strong enough in the UK, even when it’s cloudy.

We all love a sunny day and need some sun to help us make vitamin D, but it’s important to enjoy the sun safely while you’re out and about. You may just be walking round town, doing the gardening, or just sitting in the park.

When do I need to protect my skin?

In the UK, the sun’s UV rays are the strongest when the sun is highest in the sky between 11am and 3pm, from early April to late September . During this time, the sun can be strong enough to cause sunburn. If you have fair coloured skin or get sunburnt easily, protect your skin during these hours by seeking shade, covering up with clothing, a hat and sunglasses and using sunscreen on parts not covered with clothing.

Find out how you can protect your skin and enjoy the sun safely here

Getting sunburn, just once every 2 years, can triple your risk of melanoma skin cancer. Get to know when to protect your skin to reduce your risk of sunburn. Tools such as the UV index and the shadow rule can tell you when the sun’s UV rays are strong, and when your risk of sunburn may be high.

The 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.

When the UV Index is 3 or more, the sun is strong enough to cause damage for some skin types so take care and protect your skin, especially if you burn easily.

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

The shadow rule

Another handy tip to help you work out when the sun is strong is the ‘shadow rule’. It’s simple and it works anywhere in the world. Simply look at your shadow and 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.

Who’s at risk of sunburn?

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

You should take more care in the sun if you have one or more of the following:

  • 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

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.

Am I at risk of sunburn if I have darker skin?

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 burn, it doesn’t need to peel- if your skin feels irritated, tender or itchy, that’s sunburn.

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.

How can my risk of sunburn change?

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 are. 

Other things that affect the strength of UV rays are

  • 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.
  • Cloud cover – over 90% of UV can pass through light cloud and cause sunburn.
  • Location and altitude – UV rays are stronger in locations nearer to the equator. UV rays are also stronger at higher altitudes. So skiers and mountaineers can easily get caught out.
  • 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).

National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE). Sunlight exposure: risks and benefits. [Accessed January 2019]

World Health Organisation. Global Solar UV Index A Practical Guide. [Accessed January 2019]

International Agency for Research on Cancer. Radiation. Vol 100; 2012.

Holloway L. Shadow method for sun protection. Lancet, 335-484 (1990).

International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). European Code Against Cancer 12 Ways to reduce your cancer risk. [Accessed January 2019]

Gandini S. et al. Meta-analysis of risk factors for cutaneous melanoma: III. Family history, actinic damage and phenotypic factors. Eur J Cancer, 41(14), 2040-2059 (2005).


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