Protect your skin and eyes in the sun

Find out how to protect your skin and eyes from the sun.

How does the sun damage your skin?

Skin cancers are caused by damage from the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays. UV rays penetrate deep into the skin and damage cells. These cells are then at risk of becoming cancerous. You can’t feel UV damaging your skin and it happens even when the sun doesn’t feel hot.

Getting sunburnt causes the top layers of skin to release chemicals that make blood vessels swell and leak fluids. Skin turns red and feels hot and painful, and severe sunburn can lead to swelling and blisters.

"Sunburn is dangerous at any age, but it's especially harmful in children and young people," says Katy Scammell of Cancer Research UK. "Sunburn in childhood can greatly increase your risk of developing skin cancer later in life."

After you've been sunburnt, the skin peels to get rid of damaged cells. It will eventually heal and look healthy, but permanent damage may have been done.

Who's at risk?

You should take extra care when out in the sun if you:

  • have pale, white or light brown skin
  • have freckles or red or fair hair
  • tend to burn rather than tan
  • have many moles
  • have skin problems relating to a medical condition
  • are only exposed to intense sun occasionally – for example, while on holiday
  • are in a hot country where the sun is particularly intense
  • a family history of skin cancer

People who spend a lot of time in the sun, whether it’s for work or play, are at increased risk of skin cancer if they don’t take the right precautions.

People with naturally brown or black skin are less likely to get skin cancer, as darker skin has some protection against UV rays. However, skin cancer can still occur.

The Cancer Research UK website has a tool where you can find out your skin type, to see when you might be at risk of burning.

Be safe in the sun

Sunburn doesn’t just happen when you’re on holiday. In the UK, the sun is at its strongest between March and October, especially from 11am to 3pm.

You can burn when you’re not expecting it, such as during a walk or sitting in your garden. Even if it’s cool or cloudy, it’s possible to burn in the middle of the day during the UK summer. It is also possible to burn at other times of the day and year.

There is no safe or healthy way to get a tan from sunlight. Getting a tan provides little protection against later exposure to sunlight and the resulting skin damage outweighs any later protective effect.

Sun safety tips:

  • Spend time in the shade from 11am to 3pm from March to October.
  • Make sure you never burn.
  • Cover up with suitable clothing and sunglasses.
  • Remember to take extra care with children.
  • Use at least SPF15 sunscreen.

Report mole changes or unusual skin growths to your GP.

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.

Suitable clothing and sunscreen

Skin should be protected from strong sunlight by covering up with suitable clothing, staying in the 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

When buying sunscreen, make sure it's suitable for your skin type 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

Applying sunscreen

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 that 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 going 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.

How long it takes for your skin to go red or burn varies from person to person. The Cancer Research UK website has a handy tool that allows you to find out your skin type, to see when you might be at risk of burning.

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 it 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.

Sunbeds are not safe

Sunbeds are not a safe alternative to lying outside in the sun. Skin will still be exposed to harmful UV rays. Health risks linked to sunbeds and other UV tanning equipment include:

  • skin cancer
  • premature ageing of skin
  • sunburnt skin
  • dryness and itching
  • bumpy rashes
  • eye irritation
  • cataracts

It is illegal for people under 18 years old to use sunbeds, including in tanning salons, beauty salons, leisure centres, gyms and hotels.

Find out more by reading Are sunbeds safe?

Protecting your eyes

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

Over-exposure to sunlight, 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.

Reflected sunlight from snow, sand, concrete 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).

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

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

Sunglasses can also offer protection, but not all are good enough. Choose a pair with wraparound lenses or wide arms with the:

  • CE Mark
  • European Standard EN 1836:2005

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: 13/06/2014

Next review due: 13/06/2016

Page last reviewed: 12/05/2015

Next review due: 12/05/2017

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