Safety in the Sun

Precautions and procedures to avoid skin damage and overexposure to heat

Overexposure to sunlight may lead to sunburn, premature aging, skin cancer, and damage to the eyes. Tanning, once fashionable, is now considered to be harmful.

Damaging effects of sun

Exposure to strong sunlight without adequate protection can result in sunburn. Skin damage is caused by ultraviolet (UV) light, of which there are two main types: UVA light and UVB light. Overexposure to UVB light is known to cause skin cancer and cataracts. UVA light may also play a part in these conditions. In addition, repeated exposure to UV light can damage fibres called elastin in the skin, leading to premature aging.

Certain drugs, such as tetracycline antibiotics, may make the skin more sensitive to sunlight (see Photosensitivity). Oral contraceptives may cause areas of patchy skin pigmentation after exposure to the sun. Some perfumes and deodorants may cause skin discoloration in strong sunlight.

In the UK skin cancer is the most common form of cancer, with about 92,000 new cases diagnosed in 2006. The most dangerous form is malignant melanoma, which caused more than 2,000 deaths in the UK in 2007. The risk of skin cancer is greater if you had severe sunburn as a child, or if you have red or blond hair and green or blue eyes. Even if you have never had severe sunburn, exposure to the sun over many years can increase your risk of skin cancer.

Protection from the sun

You can minimize the risk of sun damage by staying out of the sun between 11 am and 3 pm. If you have to be in the sun, there are three main types of protection: clothing, sunscreens, and sunglasses.


Wear a wide-brimmed hat and tightly woven clothing that covers your shoulders and neck. Protective clothing is available, such as a “legionnaire’s hat” to cover the back of the neck, and swimwear that protects the body from UV light even when wet.


Sunscreens protect the skin by absorbing UV rays (see Sunscreens and sunblocks). Sunblocks block sunlight completely. Sunscreens only partially absorb UV rays, but because they are transparent, they are more acceptable for all-over use. You should choose one that protects against both UVA and UVB and with an SPF (sun protection factor) of at least 15 for adults or at least 30 for babies and children. It is preferable to choose a waterproof sunscreen because it is less likely to be washed or sweated off.

Sunscreens and sunblocks should be applied thickly before you go outside. They must be put directly onto the skin so should be applied before any insect repellent, make-up, or moisturizer. Afterwards, the sunscreen should be reapplied at least every 2 hours, or more frequently if it is rubbed, sweated, or washed off. You should use a sunscreen even on cloudy days and in the shade. Babies under 12 months old should be kept in the shade.


Sunglasses should give 100 per cent protection against UV light and should ideally be wrap-arounds, to stop light getting in at the sides. Never look at the sun directly, even when wearing sunglasses, or view it through a camera or binoculars, since the light can cause permanent damage to your eyes.

From the 2010 revision of the Complete Home Medical Guide © Dorling Kindersley Limited.

The subjects, conditions and treatments covered in this encyclopaedia are for information only and may not be covered by your insurance product should you make a claim.

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