The best way to prevent all types of skin cancer is to avoid spending too much time in strong sunlight.
A few minutes in the sun without sunscreen is enough to 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.
Avoid strong sunlight
Avoid spending long periods of time in strong sunlight. The sun is at its strongest from 11am to 3pm from March to October. It can also be very strong and have potentially damaging effects at other times. Even if it is cool or cloudy, it is possible to burn in the middle of the day in summer.
Wear suitable clothing
Skin should be protected from strong sunlight by covering up with suitable clothing, finding shade and applying sunscreen.
Suitable clothing includes:
- a wide-brimmed hat that shades the face, neck and ears
- a long-sleeved top
- trousers or long skirts in close-weave fabrics that do not allow sunlight through
- sunglasses with wraparound lenses or wide arms with the CE Mark and European Standard EN 1836:2005
When buying sunscreen, make sure it's suitable for your skin and blocks both ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB) radiation.
The sunscreen label should have:
- the letters "UVA" in a circle logo and at least 4-star UVA protection
- at least SPF15 sunscreen to protect against UVB
Most people do not apply enough sunscreen. The amount of sunscreen needed for the body of an average adult to achieve the stated sun protection factor (SPF) is around 35ml or 6 to 8 teaspoons of lotion. Video: how to apply sunscreen.
If sunscreen is applied too thinly, the amount of protection it gives is reduced. If you’re worried you might not be applying enough SPF15, you could use a stronger SPF30 sunscreen.
If you plan to be out in the sun long enough to risk burning, sunscreen needs to be applied twice:
- 30 minutes before you go out
- just before going out
Sunscreen should be applied to all exposed skin, including the face, neck and ears (and head if you have thinning or no hair), but a wide-brimmed hat is better.
Water-resistant sunscreen is needed if sweating or contact with water is likely.
Sunscreen needs to be reapplied liberally, frequently and according to the manufacturer’s instructions. This includes applying straight after you've been in water (even if it is "water-resistant") and after towel drying, sweating or when it may have rubbed off.
Advice for babies and children
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.
Children aged under six months should be kept out of direct strong sunlight.
From March to October in the UK, children should:
- cover up with suitable clothing
- spend time in the shade (particularly from 11am to 3pm)
- wear at least SPF15 sunscreen
To ensure they get enough vitamin D, children aged under five are advised to take vitamin D supplements even if they do get out in the sun. Find out about vitamin D supplements for children.
There is no healthy way to tan. Any tan can increase your risk of developing skin cancer. Getting a tan does very little to protect your skin from the harmful effects of the sun.
However, if you want 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 sun exposure to 30 minutes, then gradually increase it by 5 or 10 minutes a day.
Sunbeds and sunlamps
The British Association of Dermatologists advises 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.
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.
It recommends that 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 your skin and any moles for signs of melanoma. Changes to check for include:
- a new mole
- a growth or lump
- any moles, freckles or patches of skin that change in size, shape or colour
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.
Want to know more?
Read more about the signs of melanoma.
For more information, from external sites, visit:
Stay safe in the sun, including sunscreens, sunburn, heat exhaustion, eczema, child safety and moles
Page last reviewed: 10/10/2014
Next review due: 10/10/2016