Skin cancer (melanoma) - Prevention 

Preventing melanoma 

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: 13/06/2014

Next review due: 13/06/2016

Girl applying sun block

Sun safety Q&A

Stay safe in the sun, including sunscreens, sunburn, heat exhaustion, eczema, child safety and moles

The best way to prevent all types of skin cancer is to avoid overexposure to the sun.

A few minutes in the sun can help maintain healthy levels of vitamin D, which is essential for healthy bones, but it's important to avoid getting sunburn.

Once you are burnt, the damage has already been done to your skin, as it has received a dangerous level of radiation. Every time the skin is exposed to radiation, this increases the chance of a cancer occurring, possibly many years in the future.

Some simple steps to manage your sun exposure are outlined below.

Avoid the sun when it is at its hottest

The sun is usually at its hottest between 11am and 3pm, but can also be very strong and have potentially damaging effects at other times.

Do not spend long periods of time in the sun during the day. Make sure you spend time in the shade, and cover up with clothes and sunscreen.

Dress sensibly

If you cannot avoid spending long periods of time in the sun – for example, if you work outdoors – wear clothes that will provide sun protection.

This should include a hat to protect your face and scalp, and sunglasses to protect your eyes. When buying sunglasses, look for:

  • the CE or British Standard mark (BS EN 1836: 2005)
  • a UV 400 label
  • a label saying the glasses give 100% UV protection

Use sunscreen

When buying sunscreen, make sure it's suitable for your skin type and blocks both ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB) radiation. A sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 15 is recommended.

Sunscreen should be applied around 15 minutes before you go into the sun and reapplied every two hours. If you are planning to spend time in the water, use a waterproof sunscreen.

Take extra care to protect babies and children. Their skin is much more sensitive than adult skin, and repeated exposure to sunlight could lead to skin cancer developing in later life. Before going out into the sun, make sure your children are dressed appropriately and are wearing a hat and a high SPF sunscreen.

Tan sensibly

Most health professionals will tell you to avoid sunbathing altogether, because even a tan can increase your risk of developing skin cancer.

However, if you are determined to get a tan, do it gradually by limiting the amount of time you spend in the sun each day and by wearing sunscreen.

When you begin to tan, limit your exposure to the sun to 30 minutes, then gradually increase it by 5 or 10 minutes a day.

Sunbeds and sunlamps

The British Association of Dermatologists is the UK's leading professional body on skincare. They advise that people should not use sunbeds or sunlamps.

Sunbeds and lamps can be more dangerous than natural sunlight, because they use a concentrated source of ultraviolet (UV) radiation.

UV radiation can increase your risk of developing melanomas. Sunbeds and sunlamps can also cause premature skin ageing.

If you continue to use sunbeds or sunlamps, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has issued advice on the health risks linked to UV tanning equipment, which includes sunbeds, sunlamps and tanning booths. They recommend you do not use UV tanning equipment if:

  • you have fair, sensitive skin that burns easily or tans slowly or poorly
  • you have a history of sunburn, particularly in childhood
  • you have lots of freckles or red hair
  • you have lots of moles
  • you are taking medicines or using creams that make your skin sensitive to sunlight
  • you have a medical condition made worse by sunlight
  • you have had skin cancer or someone in your family has had skin cancer
  • sunlight has already badly damaged your skin

The HSE's advice also includes important points to consider before you decide to use a sunbed. For example, if you use a sunbed, the operator should advise you on your skin type and how many minutes you should use the machine for.

It is now illegal for under-18s to use sunbeds. The Sunbeds (Regulation) Act, which came into force in April 2011, prevents those under 18 from:

  • being allowed to use tanning salons and sunbeds at premises, including beauty salons, leisure centres, gyms and hotels
  • being offered the use of a sunbed
  • being allowed to be in an area reserved for sunbed users

Check your moles

As well as staying safe in the sun, you should regularly check any moles for signs of melanoma.

See your GP if you notice any changes to your moles or freckles, as this can lead to an early diagnosis and improve your chances of successful treatment.

Read more about the signs of melanoma.

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Page last reviewed: 10/10/2014

Next review due: 10/10/2016

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