28th June, 202220 min read

Safety in the sun: How to get the health benefits without the risks

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Sunshine can make you feel good, as well as increasing your levels of vitamin D. You probably love the feel of the warmth on your skin – and maybe the ‘sun-kissed’ look it can give you, too.

The downside is that the sun can cause skin ageing – think lines, wrinkles and dark spots (sunspots) – as well as sunburn, skin cancers and other health issues. Stay in the sun too long and it can also lead to itchy heat rashes, eye damage and even heatstroke.

But with the right sun protection and sun safety tips, you can look after your skin – while still enjoying the benefits. So read on to learn all you need to know about staying safe in the sun.

How the sun affects your skin

Spending time in the sun has several benefits , including making you feel happier and helping your body make vitamin D (see below). But it’s also vital to protect your skin from the sun.

Why? Ultraviolet (UV) light from the sun is a kind of radiation, and can damage your skin. It causes premature skin ageing (photoageing), such as lines, wrinkles and sunspots, as well as skin cancer.

UV rays can cause damage to the DNA in your skin cells. DNA tells cells how to function and grow – so if it’s damaged, the cells can grow out of control and become cancerous.

What you need to know about UV light

There are 2 main types of UV rays:

  • UVB – these rays are responsible for most types of sunburn and tanning, and are thought to cause most skin cancers
  • UVA – these rays are longer and reach deeper into your skin, causing ageing. They also contribute to sunburn, but much less than UVB. It’s thought that they may also play a role in some skin cancers, but this isn’t well understood

When it comes to protecting yourself from UV rays, remember that:

  • it doesn’t have to be hot and sunny for them to reach your skin – UV rays can get through even on cloudy days
  • they can reach you by reflecting off other surfaces, such as pavements, water, sand and snow – even if you’re in the shade – increasing your risk of sunburn
  • UVA rays can also reach your skin through glass, such as car windows
  • the higher up you are, the more you can be affected – you can get a lot of UV on a cold, sunny day up a mountain, for example
  • snow reflects even more UV rays than water – so make sure you use sunscreen if you’re on a skiing holiday

A third type of ray, UVC, doesn't reach the ground – so these rays aren’t normally associated with skin cancer. But they can come from manmade sources, including welding torches, mercury lamps, and UV sanitising bulbs used to kill bacteria. It’s important to wear eye protection and not look directly into UVC light sources.

How to take care of yourself in the sun

The good news is that you can still enjoy the sunshine and its benefits (see below) while protecting your skin. To do so, follow these sun safety steps.

Use the right sunscreen, the right way

  • choose a sunscreen that protects against both UVB and UVA rays. These products are sometimes labelled ‘broad spectrum’. It’s best to use one with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 30 (which protects against UVB), and at least 4-star UVA protection
  • don’t skimp on the application – an average adult needs to apply about 6 to 8 teaspoons (35ml) of sunscreen to get the protection level stated on the label
  • apply it about half an hour before you go out in the sun
  • reapply it frequently, including after being in the water – even if the product says it’s water-resistant, or only needs to be applied once a day
  • use it all year round. Remember it isn’t just needed on hot, sunny days, as UV rays can penetrate through clouds. In Northern Hemisphere climates such as the UK, the sun can be strong enough to cause sunburn from mid-March till mid-October. Plus, UV rays can still cause ageing, too

Be aware of sun and UV strengths

  • avoid the sun during the hottest parts of the day, when UV rays are strongest. This will vary according to where you are in the world – in the UK, it’s between 11am and 3pm from March to October
  • do the shadow test – if your shadow is shorter than you, it means UV rays are strong
  • check the ‘UV index’ on weather forecasts to find out how strong UV rays are on a particular day. It’s the same in every country: 1 to 2 (low), 3 to 5 (medium), 6 to 7 (high), 8 to 10 (very high) and 11+ (extremely high). Anything above 3 and you need to think about protecting your skin, especially if you burn easily
  • sunlight is stronger nearer to the equator and at high altitudes: this means you’re at higher risk of skin damage on skiing holidays, as well as exotic beach trips
  • protect yourself even in the shade: UV rays reflect off snow (80%), dry sand (15%) and seafoam (25%), as well as concrete. So even if you’re sitting under a beach umbrella and getting less direct UV light, it’s being reflected onto you by the sand
  • don’t forget that UVA light can penetrate glass. So if you sit by the window at work or at home for hours, it may cause skin damage. And if you’re driving for long periods, wear sunscreen in the car

Be clever about what you wear

  • dress in clothes that cover your arms and legs, such as long-sleeved tops and trousers, or long dresses or skirts
  • choose close-weave fabrics, such as cotton, which don’t let the sun through but allow your skin to breathe, to help keep you cool
  • wear a wide-brimmed hat that covers your face, neck and ears
  • wear sunglasses with the CE quality or UV 400 mark. And take special care to protect your eyes from reflected UV light when you’re near water, sand or snow. (See below for more tips on choosing sunglasses)
  • choose swimwear and beachwear with built-in UV protection – look for clothing with an ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) of 40 to 50

Stay hydrated

  • make sure you’re drinking enough fluids to avoid dehydration. In the US, the recommended daily intake is 3.7 litres for men and 3 litres for women. In Europe, it’s 2.5 litres for men and 2 litres for women
  • on a hot day, try drinking milk or rehydration fluids for the best hydration. A US study of 70 people looked at the hydrating effects of 13 different drinks, and found that oral rehydration solution, full-fat milk and skimmed milk were the most hydrating in the first 4 hours after drinking. It found no difference between the hydrating effects of water and sports drinks, hot tea, iced tea, coffee, cola, diet cola, sparkling water and orange juice. However, milk has more calories than water, so bear this in mind when you’re choosing what to drink regularly
  • drink more in hot weather. If you’re working in high temperatures, it’s recommended that you drink about 230ml (1 cup) of water every 15 to 20 minutes. This is more hydrating than having 1 long drink every few hours. Avoiding dehydration can help you avoid heat exhaustion (see below)
  • don’t drink too much all at once. Drinking more than about 1.5 litres in an hour can cause a medical emergency, when the salts in your blood fall too low

Can the sun be good for you?

Yes, sunshine can definitely have some health benefits (provided you’re also protecting your skin).

Sunshine may boost your mood

There’s a good reason so many of us head to beaches, lakes, outdoor bars and pubs, national parks and other green spaces when the sun comes out: it makes us feel good.

In fact, it’s thought that sunshine may boost levels of a ‘feel-good’ chemical in your brain called serotonin. Some scientists suggest that the sun on your skin may actually stimulate it to make serotonin.

And we know that low levels of serotonin are linked with

seasonal affective disorder (SAD)
– a low mood condition that some people get in the shorter winter days, when there’s less sunlight.

The sun helps your body make vitamin D

Your body needs sunlight to make

vitamin D
– which is essential to help keep your bones, teeth and muscles healthy.

So how can you get enough sunshine to make vitamin D, while also looking after your skin? Here’s what you need to know:

  • it’s usually fine to expose your arms and face to the sun without sunscreen for a few minutes a day
  • doing this safely depends on several things, including how light or dark your skin is, how hot the sun is, and what time of day it is
  • if you have white skin – a UK study found you could get enough vitamin D to last all year by spending 10 to 15 minutes a day outside without sunscreen during the spring and summer months. (The researchers noted that some people may not be able to follow this advice, such as if you have very light skin that burns easily, or you’re taking drugs that suppress your immune system). And of course, the strength of UV rays varies in different parts of the world
  • if you have brown or black skin – the same UK study found you need longer in the sun without sunscreen to get enough vitamin D to last all year: about 25 to 40 minutes a day in the spring and summer
  • you can also get vitamin D from certain foods, and take it as a supplement – so this might be an option if you’re worried that you’re not getting enough from the sun
  • in the UK, it’s recommended that all adults take a daily 10 microgram (mcg) supplement between October and March – as the sun isn’t strong enough for your body to make vitamin D during these months. If you have darker skin, you may need a supplement all year round.
  • in the US, the recommended daily intake for adults is 15mcg (or 20mcg if you’re over 70). So if you’re not getting this in your diet, or you have darker skin or limited sun exposure, you may need to take a supplement

Sunshine can improve some skin conditions

As long as you don’t overdo it, being in the sun can make some skin conditions better. You’ll still need to wear sunscreen and follow the sun-safety rules above.

Skin conditions that may improve with UV light include:

  • eczema
    – some types of this dry skin condition can get better with exposure to sunlight, but other types may get worse
  • psoriasis
    – some cases of this condition, which causes red scaly patches, may also get better in the sun (phototherapy is sometimes used as a psoriasis treatment)

Read more about how the sun can affect these and other skin conditions in our article about

photosensitivity
.

What conditions can be caused by the sun?

Skin damage (photoaging)

As explained above, both UVA and UVB rays can damage your skin. This causes premature skin ageing or ‘photoageing’, such as fine lines, wrinkles and sunspots. It can also lead to skin cancer (see below).

You’re more at risk of photoageing if you’re white. Research suggests that 80% to 90% of pale-skinned people in North America and Europe have signs of it.

What you can do:

  • protect your skin from the sun by following the sun safety tips above
  • use make-up or moisturisers that also contain SPF, to give your face another layer of protection (these shouldn’t be used instead of sunscreen)
  • try beauty products containing retinol. These may help your skin to make more collagen – the ‘scaffolding’ of skin – and improve the appearance of lines and wrinkles
  • consider trying ‘cosmeceuticals’ – these are beauty products that contain antioxidants such as vitamin C and E, other vitamins, co-enzyme Q10 or plant extracts. They’re sometimes used to treat photoageing, in combination with retinol products. So far there’s no solid evidence that they work, but watch this space.

Sunburn

Too much time in the sun (or on a

sunbed
) can cause inflamed skin, known as sunburn. And a surprising number of people still get it every year.

In the US, research suggests that at least 30% of adults get sunburnt at least once a year. In Europe and Australia, studies have reported figures between 20% and 70%.

If you get sunburnt, symptoms will usually show or get worse 12 to 24 hours after being in the sun. Your skin may:

  • feel hot to touch
  • be tender or painful
  • look red or pink if you’re white – you won’t always notice a change in skin colour if you have brown or black skin

In some cases, sunburn can be more severe and and cause:

  • blisters
  • severe pain or swelling
  • heat exhaustion

What you can do:

  • get out of the sun as soon as you can
  • apply cold compresses
  • take a cool bath or shower
  • drink plenty of water to cool down and avoid dehydration
  • apply calamine lotion or aloe vera gel to soothe the skin
  • take
    painkillers
    to help reduce inflammation and pain

Skin cancer

Despite awareness campaigns encouraging us to follow sun safety advice, skin cancer is still common.

In the US, it’s the most common type of cancer. According to the American Academy of Dermatology Association, at least 1 in 5 Americans will get skin cancer at some point, and 9,500 people are diagnosed every day.

It’s also one of the most common cancers in the UK. According to Cancer Research UK, there are more than 170,000 cases diagnosed every year.

There are 3 main types of skin cancer:

  • basal cell carcinoma (BCC) – sometimes known as ‘rodent ulcers’, BCCs are the most common type of skin cancer, making up about 75% to 80% of cases. Read about
    what BCCs look like.
  • squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) – about 20% of skin cancers are SCCs. Read about
    what SCCs look like.
  • melanoma – this is the least common type of skin cancer. But it’s the most serious, as it’s more likely to spread. It often starts from changes to a mole you already have. Read about how to spot melanoma.

What you can do:

  • protect your skin – experts say up to 9 out of 10 melanomas could be prevented by practising sun safety
  • check your moles regularly (get someone to check your back, or photograph it so you can check for changes). Read about how to check your moles
  • see your doctor if you notice changes to a mole, or any other skin changes. If your doctor suspects skin cancer, they can refer you to a specialist dermatologist for diagnosis and treatment

Read about treatment for melanoma and

non-melanoma skin cancers.

Heat rash (prickly heat)

Some people find that being in hot, sunny conditions can trigger an itchy rash, known as heat rash or sometimes sweat rash or ‘prickly heat’.

It can happen when sweat gets trapped under your skin, causing small raised bumps or blisters, and itchiness or stinging.

Babies and small children often get heat rash, because they can’t control their body temperature efficiently. But adults can get it, too, and you’re more likely to get it in warm weather.

What you can do:

  • move to a shady, dry place, out of the sun
  • cool the affected area with a cold compress, or take a cold bath
  • wear clothes made from breathable fabrics, such as cotton
  • see a doctor if you also have swelling, a temperature (fever) or feel unwell, as these could be signs of an infection

Read more about

heat rash and how to treat it
.

Polymorphic light eruption (PMLE)

Also known as polymorphous light eruption or sun allergy, polymorphic light eruption (PMLE) is a rash caused by sensitivity to the sun. It can happen when your skin is first exposed to the sun in spring or early summer.

It often looks like tiny bumps or raised patches of skin, and can feel sore or itchy. It usually gets better after a few days, without the need for treatment, but it can flare up every year.

What you can do:

Self-care and pharmacy tips for PMLE include:

Eye problems

UV rays can also cause eye damage, including:

  • photokeratitis – this is a type of sunburn to the clear part at the front of your eye (cornea). It can happen when UV reflects off sand, water or snow (it’s sometimes known as ‘snow blindness’)
  • an increased risk of
    cataracts
    – when the lens of your eye becomes less clear, meaning things look cloudy
  • pterygium – this is a non-cancerous growth on your eye, sometimes known as surfer’s eye, which can affect your vision
  • eye cancers
    – these are very rare, but it’s possible to get a melanoma in your eye

What you can do:

The best way to protect your eyes from sun damage is to wear well-fitting sunglasses. Here’s how to choose the right pair:

  • opt for big, wraparound shades that will stop UV rays reaching your eyes from the side and cover the whole of your delicate eye area
  • check the label – it should state that they give 100% UV protection
  • don’t be fooled by darker lenses – unless they offer 100% UV protection, it doesn’t matter how dark they are
  • check that ‘polarised’ lenses – designed to improve vision when there’s reflective glare – also have 100% UV protection
  • check that non-prescription sunglasses are correctly made. You can do this by looking at a rectangular pattern, such as on a tiled floor. Hold the glasses at a comfortable distance from your face and cover 1 eye. Move the glasses up and down or side to side, looking through the lenses. If the lines look straight, the lenses are fine. But if the lines wiggle or look wavy, don’t buy the sunglasses

Heat exhaustion and heatstroke

Sometimes, spending too long outside in hot sunshine without enough to drink can lead to heat exhaustion, or even heatstroke.

Heat exhaustion isn’t usually serious if you get prompt treatment (within half an hour), but heatstroke can be life-threatening and needs urgent medical attention.

Children, older people and those with long-term health conditions – such as heart disease or diabetes – are most at risk.

Symptoms of heat exhaustion include:

  • dizziness or confusion
  • feeling very thirsty
  • sweating a lot
  • cool, moist, pale skin
  • fast pulse or breathing

Read more about the

symptoms of heat exhaustion and heatstroke
.

What you can do:

  • get out of the sun
  • take a cold bath to lower your body temperature as quickly as possible
  • rehydrate by drinking water

Watch this space: can supplements protect you from the sun?

Obviously, the best way to protect yourself against sun damage is to follow the sun safety advice in this article.

There’s some limited evidence to suggest that the following supplements may offer additional protection. But they shouldn’t be used instead of other protection measures:

  • polypodium leucotomos extract – this is a supplement made from a tropical fern grown in Central and South America. It’s a traditional Native American remedy for skin conditions and inflammation. And some research has shown it helps protect against UV rays if taken orally. There’s no safety data for use if you’re pregnant, breastfeeding or under 18, so avoid it if that’s you
  • nicotinamide – this is a type of vitamin B3 that dissolves in water (water soluble). Nicotinamide supplements may reduce inflammation and a photoageing condition called actinic keratosis, as well as the risk of skin cancer (particularly SCCs). But more research is needed to prove their effectiveness before they can be recommended
  • lycopene and lutein – 1 small trial showed that supplements containing lycopene (found in tomatoes) and lutein (found in green leafy veg) may help protect your skin from UVA and UVB sun damage. More research is needed, but tomatoes and veg containing lutein have other health benefits, so it’s worth including them in your diet

Your health questions answered

We’re taking our toddlers (aged 2 and 4) and baby (4 months) on their first beach holiday in Spain. How much sun protection do they need?

“Babies under 6 months old have very delicate skin and should be kept out of the sun. Make sure they’re indoors during the hottest parts of the day, and well-protected when outdoors. Children also need to be protected while they have fun in the sun. In fact, sunburn in childhood can greatly increase the risk of skin cancer later in life. Try using an all-day, waterproof sunscreen as a base. Then keep topping it up by applying an SPF 50 product according to the instructions – particularly after they’ve been in the water, as towel-drying can rub it off. Buy ‘Legionnaire’s style’ hats that cover their necks, sunsuits with built-in UV protection, and baby sunglasses to protect their eyes. Time your beach or pool visits for the early morning and late afternoon, avoiding the sun between 11am and 3pm. And take them for midday ‘siestas’ out of the sun. Make sure they drink lots of fluids throughout the day, too.”

I’ve got sunspots on my arms, due to long-term sun exposure. My mum said lemon juice would make them fade. Will this help – or are there any other home remedies for dark spots?

“There are many home remedies suggested for dark sunspots, but they’re usually ineffective – and can even cause harm in some cases. Although the benefits of lemons are widely discussed, as they contain high levels of vitamin C, using them directly on your skin can cause irritation and inflammation, so this is best avoided. If you want to try vitamin C, use a cream that’s designed to be applied to the skin. There is also limited evidence about the potential benefits of soy, liquorice extract, mulberry and turmeric – watch this space, as research is ongoing. The best way to avoid sunspots in the first place is to take extra care in the sun and follow sun safety advice.”

Important: Our website provides useful information but is not a substitute for medical advice. You should always seek the advice of your doctor when making decisions about your health.