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How to enjoy the sun safely

The best way to enjoy the sun safely and protect your skin from sunburn is to use a combination of shade, clothing and sunscreen. When the sun is strong or you’re at risk of burning:

  • Spend time in the shade between 11am and 3pm.
  • Wear a t-shirt, hat and sunglasses.
  • Use a sunscreen with at least factor 15 and a high star rating. Use it generously and reapply regularly.

Shade

One of the best ways to protect yourself from the sun's harmful UV rays is to spend some time in the shade.

You can find or create shade in many different ways. For example:

  • trees and foliage
  • umbrellas and parasols
  • canopies and awnings
  • going indoors
  • tents and shelters
  • wide-brimmed hats

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).

Covering up

When there's no shade around, the best way to protect your skin from the sun is with loose clothing, a wide-brimmed hat and good quality sunglasses.

Clothes

The more skin that’s covered by your clothing, the better the protection you’re getting. Look for materials with a close weave, as they will block out the most UV rays. Holding the material up to the light is a good way to see how much light and UV rays will get through.

Be aware that when some clothes get wet, they stretch and allow more UV rays through to your skin. This is particularly a problem for cotton clothes. A wet cotton t-shirt may only offer half the protection of a dry one.

Hats

Hats are great for protecting the face, eyes and head. Choose a wide-brimmed hat for the most protection. A ‘legionnaire’ style hat that has flaps around the ears and back of the neck, also offers good protection.

Sunglasses

When choosing sunglasses look for one of the following:

  • the 'CE Mark' and British Standard (BS EN 1836:1997)
  • a UV 400 label
  •  a statement that the sunglasses offer 100% UV protection

Also, make sure that the glasses offer protection at the side of the eye, for example, choose wraparound styles.

Sunscreen 

Sunscreens can be useful for protecting our skin from the sun's rays, if you can’t avoid sun exposure. However, 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 too much UV exposure.

We recommend buying sunscreens with:

  • a Sun Protection Factor (SPF) of at least 15
  • a high star rating - the more stars, the better

The sun protection factor gives an indication of how much protection against UVB radiation the sunscreen offers, and the star rating reflects the level of protection against UVA radiation. UVA protection can also be indicated by the letters ‘UVA’ in a circle which indicates that it meets the EU standard.

Sunscreens with higher factors don’t provide much more protection against UVB radiation. For example, an SPF15 sunscreen filters out 93% of UVB radiation, while an SPF30 sunscreen filters out 96%. 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. You should never use sunscreen in order to spend longer in the sun. No sunscreen, no matter how high the factor, can provide 100% protection.

Tips for using sunscreen properly

Sunscreen only works if you use enough. No sunscreen, whether it’s factor 15 or 50, will give the protection it claims unless you apply it properly. Therefore, it is crucial that you apply sunscreen generously and regularly.

People often apply much less sunscreen than they need to, to get the full protection. When your risk of burning is high, ensure that all exposed skin is thoroughly covered in sunscreen. As a guide, for an average person, this means:

  • around two teaspoonfuls of sunscreen if you're just covering your head, arms and neck.
  • around two tablespoonfuls if you're covering your entire body, while wearing a swimming costume.

Check out this video on the NHS Choices website for more information about applying sunscreen

A few more tips to remember:

  • Use sunscreen together with shade and clothing to avoiding getting caught out by sunburn.
  • Don’t be tempted to spend longer in the sun than you would without sunscreen.
  • Apply to clean, dry skin.
  • Apply plenty of sunscreen and reapply it regularly. Sunscreen can be easily washed, rubbed or sweated off.
  • Even sunscreens that claim to be ‘water resistant’ or ‘waterproof’ should be reapplied after going in the water.
  • Do not store sunscreens in very hot places as extreme heat can ruin their protective chemicals.
  • Don’t forget to check the expiry date on your sunscreen. Most sunscreens have a shelf life of 2-3 years, but ensure your sunscreen has not expired before you use it.

Brands of sunscreen

Cancer Research UK does not endorse any specific brand of sunscreens. All sunscreens use the same method to determine how protective they are.

This means that brand and price are less important than things like the SPF and star ratings, which tell you how much protection they offer.

P20/Once a day application sunscreens 

Some sunscreens claim to provide effective protection after just one application. But even with these sunscreens, reapplying regularly is important, because you are more likely to get even coverage and avoid missing bits that may then get burnt.

Protecting the little ones

Babies and children need extra protection from the sun because their skin is delicate and easily damaged. Children with fair or red hair, pale eyes or freckles are at most risk.

Skin cancer is very rare in children, but many skin cancers take years to develop. Damage to the DNA of our skin cells when young may develop into skin cancer several decades later.  Studies have found that sunburn during childhood can increase the risk of skin cancer later on in life. This is why it’s important to ensure that children stay safe in the sun. It will also help set good habits for the future. Teaching children how to enjoy the sun safely while they are young sets a good pattern for later life.

Keep babies under six months out of direct sunlight, especially around midday.