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Smart sunbathing

If you're off on holiday, thinking about heading to the beach or lounging in the sunshine trying desperately to get a tan, you should be aware that too much time in the sun is dangerous. It can damage your skin and lead to skin cancer later on in life.

Skin cancer

Most skin cancers are caused by damage from UV (ultraviolet) rays given off by the sun. If too many of these rays penetrate your skin, you may get sunburn which can double the risk of developing skin cancer later in life.

Skin cancer is one of the most common cancers among teenagers and young people, and the number of people developing it is growing. As well as the social pressure of getting a tan, many of us still don’t know how serious the consequences of overexposure to strong sunlight actually are.

There are two types of skin cancer: malignant melanomas, which are the more serious types of skin cancer, and non-melanoma skin cancers which are less serious, but mainly affect older people.

Who's at risk

Anyone who spends long periods of time outside in the summer months can suffer from skin damage caused by UV rays, but some people are particularly at risk.

These people tend to have one or more of the following:

  • fair skin that tends to burn in strong sun
  • red or fair hair
  • lots of moles or freckles
  • a history of skin cancer in their family

As a general rule, the fairer your skin, the more careful you should be in the sun. Even if you have naturally dark skin, you're still at risk if you don't take the necessary steps to protect yourself.

Sun sense

If you are planning to spend a lot of time outside this summer, whether it's lying on a beach, playing a lot of sport or simply working outside for long periods, there are a few simple things you can do to reduce the risk of over-exposure:

  • check the UV level before you go out; this is a more accurate way of finding out how strong the sun is than using the temperature as a guide
  • on particularly hot and sunny days, spend time in the shade between 11.00 am and 3.00 pm when the sun is at its peak
  • use a good factor 15+ sun-tan lotion that protects you against UVA and UVB rays even if you think you have relatively dark skin
  • wear a hat and sunglasses to protect your head and eyes
  • keep a T-shirt or loose top with you to cover up every so often

Protecting yourself on the ski slope

Beach resorts aren’t the only place where you need to think about protecting yourself from the sunshine. Skiing and snowboarding holidays in the winter also expose you to UV rays that can damage your skin.

Because you’re at a higher altitude and closer to the sun, its strength is more intense. This means that any areas of your body that aren’t covered up can burn a lot more quickly than they do on the beach.

If you’re going on a winter sports holiday, make sure you:

  • protect any areas of exposed skin with a good sunscreen, especially your lips, face and around your eyes
  • put on your sunscreen first thing in the morning and keep re-applying it every two hours or so

It’s also a good idea to buy a pair of wraparound sunglasses or ski goggles that fully protect your eyes from UV rays. Check the label or ask someone working in the shop to find out how much protection your glasses will give you.

Tell-tale signs

If you do spend a lot of time outdoors in the summer, get used to checking your body for moles regularly. Most moles are natural blemishes and are not dangerous, but if you find that they're changing shape or colour, or if you find a new one, get them checked out by a doctor.


Like the sun, sunbeds give out UV rays that can increase the risk of skin cancer. The more you use sunbeds, the greater the risk is likely to be and when the tan fades, the skin damage remains.

You should never use a sunbed if you’re under 18, as younger skin is more delicate and prone to damage than older skin. Even if you are over 18, be very careful if you choose to use one.

You should also really avoid sunbeds altogether if you:

  • have fair or freckly skin
  • burn easily
  • have a lot of moles
  • have a family history of skin cancer
  • are using medication that increases your sensitivity to UV

If you do decide to use one, limit yourself to two sessions a week, over a period of 30 weeks, every year.

Remember that if you don't tan in the sun, you won't tan any more easily on a sunbed. Also, topping up your tan before you go away does not build up your resistance to UV rays. Too much time in the sun will still cause damage no matter how tanned you are.

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