Sun safety Q&A

Find out how to protect your skin in the sun to avoid sunburn and heat exhaustion.

Skin should be protected from strong sunlight by covering up with suitable clothing, seeking shade and applying sunscreen.

What sun protection factor (SPF) should I use?

Sunscreen is not an alternative to covering up with suitable clothing and seeking shade, but it does offer additional protection if applied correctly.

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

Make sure the product is not past its expiry date. Most sunscreens have a shelf life of two to three years.

Tips on applying sunscreen:

  • To be most effective, sunscreen should be applied liberally. The amount of sunscreen needed for the body of an average adult to achieve the stated SPF is around 35ml or 6 to 8 teaspoons of lotion.
  • If sunscreen is applied too thinly, it provides less protection.
  • If you’re worried you might not be applying enough SPF15, you could use a stronger SPF30 sunscreen.

What are the SPF and star rating?

The sun protection factor, or SPF, is a measure of the amount of UVB protection. The higher the number, the greater the protection. In the UK, UVA protection is measured with a star rating. Sunscreen ratings range from 0 to 5 stars. The higher the number of stars, the greater the protection.

How long can I stay in the sun?

Don’t spend any longer in the sun than you would without sunscreen. In the UK, the sun is at its strongest from March to October, especially from 11am to 3pm. Try to spend time in the shade between these times. You can still burn in cloudy conditions, even if it is not warm.

Find out your skin type and your sensitivity to sunlight on the Cancer Research UK website.

Should I reapply sunscreen if I swim?

Water washes off sunscreen, and the cooling effect of the water can make you think you're not getting burned. Water also reflects UV rays, increasing your exposure. Sunscreen should be reapplied 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.

What clothing should I wear?

Wear clothes that provide sun protection, such as:

  • 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

What should I do if I get sunburn?

Painkillers, such as paracetamol or ibuprofen, will ease the pain by helping to reduce inflammation caused by sunburn. Sponge sore skin with cool water, then apply soothing aftersun or calamine lotion. If you feel unwell or the skin swells badly or blisters, seek medical help. Stay out of the sun until all signs of redness have gone.

Are children more at risk of sunburn?

Yes. 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

Apply sunscreen to areas not protected by clothing, such as the face, ears, feet and backs of hands.

Consider sunscreens that are formulated for children and babies' skin, as these are less likely to irritate their skin.

My child has eczema. What sunscreen should I use?

Some sunscreens may aggravate eczema. Check the label for any ingredients that you know your child is allergic to. Test any new sunscreen on a small area before applying it to the whole body. Put on your child’s emollient and steroids first, then put the sunscreen on 30 minutes later. Remember to put more sunscreen on regularly throughout the day and especially after swimming.

What are the symptoms of heat exhaustion?

Heat exhaustion occurs when the body cannot lose heat fast enough. If it's not treated quickly, it can lead to heat stroke, which is a much more dangerous condition. Signs of heat exhaustion include faintness, dizziness, palpitations, nausea, headaches, low blood pressure, tiredness, confusion, loss of appetite and hallucinations.

What should I do if someone has signs of heat exhaustion?

Get them to rest in a cool place  ideally a room with air conditioning. Give them plenty of water. Avoid alcohol or caffeine, as this can increase dehydration. Cool their skin with cold water. Use a shower or cold bath to cool them down or, if this is not possible, wet flannels and face cloths in water and apply to their skin. Loosen any unnecessary clothing and make sure that the person gets plenty of ventilation. Monitor their condition closely.

Should I cover up my mole when I’m in the sun?

If you have lots of moles or freckles, you're risk of getting skin cancer is higher than average, so take extra care. Avoid getting caught out by sunburn. Use shade, clothing and sunscreen with an SPF of at least 15 to protect yourself.

Keep an eye out for changes to your skin. Changes to check for include:

  • a new mole, growth or lump
  • any moles, freckles or patches of skin that change in size, shape or colour

Report these to your doctor as soon as possible. Skin cancer is much easier to treat if it is found early.

Use the mole self-assessment tool to see whether you could have a cancerous mole.

Page last reviewed: 26/05/2014

Next review due: 26/05/2016

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Media last reviewed: 13/06/2014

Next review due: 13/06/2016