Sun protection for eyes and skin

It is vital to protect your eyes and skin from the sun's UV rays. This reduces the risk of skin cancer.

Sun damage happens when the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays penetrate into the skin and damage cells. You can’t feel this happening, and it can occur even when the sun doesn’t feel very hot. Damage from UV rays also happens when using sunbeds.

Sun damage increases the risk of skin cancer, and speeds up the skin's natural ageing process. Exposure to UV rays can also damage your eyes, and can lead to problems such as burning and cataracts (clouding of the lens).

Everyone needs some sun to help keep their bodies healthy, but overexposure to UV can lead to sunburn, premature ageing and skin cancer. The most important thing you can do to protect your skin is to make sure you don't burn.

You can protect your eyes and skin by spending time in the shade when the sun is at its strongest (between 11am and 3pm in the UK), covering up with clothes, sunglasses and a hat, and applying sunscreen to exposed skin. 

Using sunscreen properly

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Be liberal with your sunscreen. According to Cancer Research UK, people don't apply as much sunscreen as they need to. If you don't apply enough, you won't get the protection that is claimed on the bottle.

Make sure you cover all exposed skin, including the tops of feet, ears and the back of the neck.

The SunSmart campaign recommends that you:

  • Use sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 15 or more.
  • Choose a sunscreen labelled "broad spectrum", which means it protects against both UVA and UVB rays, with a star rating of four or five stars.
  • Apply sunscreen to clean, dry skin.
  • Use around two teaspoons of suncream to cover your head, arms and neck.
  • Use at least two tablespoons of sunscream to cover all your exposed skin, if you're wearing a swimsuit.
  • Re-apply sunscreen regularly (at least every two hours) as it can come off through washing, rubbing or sweating.
  • Re-apply sunscreen after going in the water, even if it's labelled waterproof.
  • Use sunscreen along with clothing and staying in the shade to avoid getting caught out by sunburn.
  • Don't be tempted to spend longer in the sun than you would without sunscreen.

Don’t forget to check the expiry date on your sunscreen, and don't use it if it has expired.

Do I need to worry if I have naturally dark skin?

Anyone can develop skin cancer, but people with naturally brown or black skin are less likely to get skin cancer because darker skin has more natural protection against UV rays.

People who have: 

  • fair skin that burns in strong sun
  • red or fair hair
  • a lot of moles or freckles
  • a personal or family history of skin cancer
  • been sunburned before

are at increased risk of developing skin cancer. If these factors apply to you, take extra care to protect your skin.

Protecting your eyes

Long-term exposure to sunlight increases the risk of a type of cataract and is also linked to pterygia (a growth on the surface of the eye).

Simon Kelly, of the Royal College of Ophthalmologists, warns that sun can burn the eyes too. 

"Over-exposure to ultraviolet light, such as a day at the beach without proper eye protection, can cause a temporary but painful burn to the surface of the eye, similar to sunburn on the skin," he says.

He adds that reflected sunlight from snow and water, and artificial light from sunbeds, is particularly dangerous. Always avoid looking directly at the sun. "Staring directly at the sun can permanently scar the retina, the area at the back of the eye responsible for vision," he says.

Another risk to eyes is skin cancer, which can affect the eyelids and area around the eyes. Longterm exposure to the sun can increase this risk.

Wearing a wide-brimmed hat can reduce the amount of UV rays reaching your face and eyes.

What to look for in sunglasses

Sunglasses can also offer protection, but not all of them are adequate. When you’re shopping for sunglasses, choose a pair that has 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

Think about the sides of your eyes, and consider sunglasses with wide or wraparound arms.

How to be sun smart

In the UK, 2,000 people a year die from malignant melanoma, and the number is increasing. An expert and members of the public talk about how to stay safe in the sun.

Media last reviewed: 26/05/2012

Next review due: 26/05/2014

Page last reviewed: 28/03/2012

Next review due: 28/03/2014


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How to apply sunscreen

An expert explains why it is important to protect your skin from sunburn to help avoid skin cancer. She also gives advice on how to apply sunscreen correctly and what to look out for when buying sun cream.

Media last reviewed: 26/05/2012

Next review due: 26/05/2014

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