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Yes, the risk of skin cancers can be reduced. This section tells you what you can do to reduce your risk.
There is harmful ultraviolet (UV) radiation in sunlight. In the short-term sunlight causes burning. In the long-term it damages the elasticity of the skin, causing wrinkles. It also damages the epidermis (the outer layer of the skin), causing skin cancer and other skin diseases. This damage can happen even when the skin has not burned.
Most people’s skin tans naturally when exposed to sunlight. This is the epidermis’s response to radiation damage. A light, controlled, and gradually obtained tan is not likely to cause serious lasting skin damage. The problems start when skin is allowed to burn, or is repeatedly exposed to sunshine over many years. This is true for all people, whether they tan ‘well’ or not. People with the lightest skin type never tan, they burn or peel. They are the most vulnerable to repeated and intense sun exposure.
To reduce the risk of skin cancer:
- Never allow yourself, or your children, to burn.
- Cover up with tightly woven (not transparent) clothes and hats. This is the best kind of sun protection for you and your children.
- When possible, stay in the shade between 11am and 3pm or when the sun is at its strongest. Whether at home or abroad the sun is particularly strong around noon. Use the “shadow rule” – if your shadow is shorter than you are, the sun is at a strength likely to burn.
- Cover up, or use a sunscreen of SPF 15 or above. SPF 30 or above is recommended for children. Do not use sunscreen on babies under 6 months old. Children who are not mobile yet should be covered and kept in the shade.
A sunscreen especially formulated for children is less likely to contain alcohol or fragrances that might irritate their skin. Sunscreen needs to be generously applied. Take particular care to coat the nose, face, neck, ears, hands, and forearms, and all other exposed areas. Do not use sunscreens to extend the time you stay out in the sun.
- Pregnant women are more sensitive to sunlight and should take more care than usual in the sun.
Remember that UV rays are hardly blocked by thin cloud or water, and that UV exposure can be intensified because the sun’s rays bounce back off sand and snow. Wind can make the sun feel cooler than it is, but it has no protective effect.
You also need to take care of your eyes as UV exposure can cause skin cancer in the eye and cataracts. Wear sunglasses with UV protection when it is bright, and never look directly at the sun. If you are going on a snow sport holiday eye protection is important too, so wear shaded goggles or UV protective sunglasses.
Take extra special care of children
Although skin cancer in children is rare, sunburn in childhood can greatly increase the risk of skin cancer in later life. Too much sun exposure in childhood can also increase the risk of skin cancer. Children need cover on their ears, neck, upper back and shoulders. Except for those with extreme sensitivity, close-weave clothing is just as effective as special UV protective clothing.
For more information, the UK has a national skin cancer prevention campaign called SunSmart.
Be skin aware
Think about whether you may be at an increased risk of skin cancer because of your exposure to sunshine over your lifetime. Are there any periods when you have been badly sunburned or when you had a lot of exposure to the sun?
Check yourself regularly all over, looking for new moles or unusual blemishes, or changes to existing moles. If you have a lot of moles, or unusual moles, taking photographs of your whole body will help you to notice any changes.
See your GP promptly if you have any moles, lumps, unusual growths, sores or scabs on your skin which are
- changing appearance in any way and have not completely healed after 2-4 weeks.
You should do a regular self-examination. Once every three months is recommended. How to examine your own skin in five minutes...
Avoid sun beds
Sun beds and other artificial tanning equipment radiate damaging ultraviolet light, like the sun. This light can cause skin cancer. The type of tan produced by a sun bed is less protective than one stimulated by sunlight.
"I Love Me" sunbeds advert
Tan from a bottle
Fake tan lotions and creams are regarded as safe. However, sunscreens which aslo contain fake tan usually only have an SPF about 4, so be careful and follow the protective advice above. If you have a fake tan you will still need to apply sunscreen when your skin is exposed to sunlight.
Immune suppressed people
If you are having a treatment with drugs that suppress your immune system, such as after an organ transplant, skin cancers can grow and spread more quickly. You need to take extra care to avoid the sun. If you develop a suspicious skin spot, see your GP promptly.
Is there a screening programme for skin cancer?
There is no national screening programme for skin cancer. If you are concerned about your risk, speak to your GP. We have some more general advice on cancer prevention here.