myths about sun damage

Lane Wells, AXA Health Registered Nurse

5 myths about sun damage

Sun damage myths

19 April 2022

Getting outdoors and soaking up those rays, when the sun does decide to come out, is common practice amongst many of us. Whether it’s taking a summer holiday or sunbathing in the garden, the sunlight can do wonders for our mental wellbeing but are you aware of the damage the sun can cause us if we don’t take precautions?

Too much exposure to UV rays (a source of energy released naturally by the sun and artificially from sunbeds) can damage the DNA in your skin cells and potentially lead to skin cancer. In fact, according to the latest stats from Cancer Research UK: “There are around 16,700 new melanoma skin cancer cases in the UK every year”1 with cases predicted to reach 19,513 by 2025.2

We’re taking a look at some common misconceptions when it comes to the sun and the damage it can cause; so that the next time you head out to top up the tan you’re well equipped on how to do it safely.

Read more: Top tips for sun protection

Top 5 sun myths

It doesn’t matter what time I’m out in the sun

Unfortunately, it does matter when you should and shouldn’t be out in the sun. In the UK, between 11am and 3pm the sun is at its hottest and you should ideally be heading for shade during this time, or at least making sure you’re covering up and using sunscreen.

Cancer Research UK say: “Up to 9 in 10 cases of melanoma skin cancer could be prevented by enjoying the sun safely. So, whether you’re working outside, doing the gardening or sitting in the park, it’s important to be sun smart.”3

A simple way to find out when the sun's rays are at their strongest is to look at your shadow - if it’s shorter than your height this means that the sun's UV rays are strong.

It’s a cloudy day, I won’t burn

UV rays can indeed get through clouds, in fact over 90% can, so the chance of getting sunburnt is still very much possible. Sunscreen should still be used to help protect your skin and reduce the risk of sun damage.

If you have fair skin or if you burn very easily, you will need the highest level of protection. Even if your skin tends to tan rather than burn, it’s still important to take care in the sun and use sunscreen.

If you have naturally brown or black skin, the extra melanin pigment in the skin cells may provide a bit more protection against harm from UV rays but sun protection is still necessary.

Getting sunburn once or twice won’t hurt

Sunburn, just once every two years can triple your risk of melanoma skin cancer,4 so this myth is definitely not true. There are also some people who are at higher risk of skin damage and potentially skin cancer, these people should therefore be taking extra care when out in the sun:

  • have skin that burns easily
  • have light or fair skin, light hair or eyes
  • large amounts of moles or freckles
  • a history of sunburn
  • a family or personal history of skin cancer.

I’ve got a high SPF sunscreen on, so I don’t need to reapply as much

No sunscreen can provide all day protection. It needs to be reapplied regularly, as it can be easily washed, rubbed or sweated off. Even sunscreens that claim to be 'waterproof' should be reapplied after going in the water.

What to look for in a sunscreen:

  • A Sun Protection Factor (SPF) of at least 30 - the higher the factor of sunscreen the better.
  • Sunscreens with a star rating of four stars or more.
  • Sunscreens have a shelf life of two to three years – so make sure yours hasn’t gone past its expiry date.

Sunbeds are safer than sunbathing outside

Definitely not the case. The NHS say: “Sunbeds give out ultraviolet (UV) rays that increase your risk of developing both skin cancer (melanoma) and skin cancer (non-melanoma). Many sunbeds give out greater doses of UV rays than the midday tropical sun.”5

Ongoing concern about the use of sunbeds has led to the use of them being banned by law to anyone aged under-18 in the UK.  If you’re keen to have a tan, the safest way to achieve it is to use fake tan instead.

So, the next time you head out to enjoy the sunshine make sure you’re doing it safely, as it really isn’t worth the risk.

Further reading:

Sun damage: the risks and how to protect yourself

References:

  1. Melanoma skin cancer statistics – Cancer Research UK
  2. 2020 MELANOMA SKIN CANCER REPORT - World Health Organization (WHO)
  3. The UV index and sunburn risk – Cancer Research UK
  4. Who’s at risk of sunburn? – Cancer Research UK
  5. Are sunbeds safe? - NHS