Spending time in the sun can be satisfying, relaxing and can promote a strong sense of well-being. The body also produces vitamin D when exposed to sunlight, which is essential for the absorption of calcium and the maintenance of strong, healthy bones and teeth. However, over-exposure to the sun's rays can be harmful therefore a sensible approach and adequate sun protection are essential for staying safe and healthy in the sun. It is not advisable to deliberately try to develop a tan.The sun produces powerful ultraviolet (UV) rays. Of these rays, UVA and UVB rays can damage the skin and eyes. Excessive use of sunbeds and sunlamps can also be damaging because they also emit UVA and UVB rays.

Although the sun's rays are dangerous all year round, in Britain they are more intense during the summer. They are particularly dangerous on a clear day although UV rays can penetrate cloud. The sun's rays are very strong near the equator, at high altitude and in places where rays easily reflect off pale surfaces such as sand, snow, concrete or water.

Damaging Effects Of The Sun

When exposed to the sun, the skin produces a dark brown pigment called 'melanin' to protect itself. This pigment is what causes the characteristic suntanned appearance of the skin. Different skin types have different levels of natural sun protection: people with pale skin will have less melanin than those with dark skin. Those particularly at risk from skin damage include babies and children, those with red/fair hair, pale skin and blue eyes and those with freckles or moles.

Sunburn causes inflammation, redness, tenderness and in extreme cases blistering. Damaged skin dies and is shed: a process commonly known as 'peeling'. A cooling lotion such as calamine can help to soothe sunburn. Over-exposure to the sun can cause premature ageing. The outer layer of the skin thickens causing wrinkles, the skin loses its elasticity and begins to sag and it can also become dry and 'leathery'. The sun can also cause skin cancer. In Britain, 40000 cases of skin cancer are reported each year.

The sun's rays can also damage the eyes causing irritation of the conjunctiva, which is the film covering the front of the eye, or damage to the cornea, which is the layer covering the front of the eye.

Staying Safe In The Sun

Sunscreen

Sunscreens and sunblocks can be applied to the skin to protect it from the sun. They are available as creams, lotions, oils, sprays and sticks. Every sunscreen will have a sun protection factor or 'SPF': this number indicates how powerful the product is at shielding the skin from the sun's rays. If a person wearing no sunscreen at all starts to turn red after being in the sun for five minutes, then it will take five times longer for the skin to turn red wearing a SPF 5 sunscreen and fifteen times longer wearing a SPF 15 sunscreen

SPF Time Taken For Skin To Burn

No protection 5 minutes
SPF 5 25 minutes (5x5)
SPF 15 1 hour 15 minutes (5x15)
SPF 30 2 hours 30 minutes (5x30)

SPF 15 is recommended for those with mid to dark skin and SPF 30 for children and those with fair skin that burns easily. It should be applied generously 30 minutes before going out into the sun and it should be reapplied frequently (at least every 2 hours). It should also be reapplied after swimming, if you have been sweating or if the sunscreen is likely to have been rubbed away. Sunscreens are not just for holidaymakers, they should also be used by anyone who spends a lot of time outside. The sunscreen should be applied to all exposed areas of skin paying particular attention to the back of the neck, ears, scalp, lips and just below collars, sleeves and shoe straps.It is important to use plenty of sunscreen to ensure that all exposed skin is protected. As a guide, if you use a cream or lotion you should use two 'fingers' of sunscreen (two strips running the full length of your index finger) to each of these areas of your body: left arm, right arm, upper back, lower back, upper front torso, lower front torso, left upper leg and thigh, right upper leg and thigh, left lower leg and foot, right lower leg and foot, and finally the head, neck and face. On average, an adult should use 30-40ml to cover their entire body.Two areas of the body frequently forgotten about are the palms of the hands and the soles of the feet. The skin in these areas is particularly vulnerable because it does not produce melanin to protect itself. If you are sitting or lying in the sun with the palms of your hands and the soles of your feet exposed to the sun's rays (e.g. sunbathing on your front), keep them covered or apply a high factor sunscreen.

You should buy a new supply of sunscreen every year. Effectiveness can be reduced by storage and especially by exposure to heat.

Other Sun Safety Measures

  • Limit time spent in the sun. Babies should be kept out of direct sunlight
  • Cover up. Tightly-woven fabrics are better at shielding the skin from the sun's rays
  • The hottest part of the day is usually between 11am and 3pm when the sun is high in the sky. Staying indoors or in the shade during this part of the day is recommended
  • Wide-brimmed sunhats should be worn, especially by babies and children
  • Sunglasses should be worn in bright sunlight to protect the eyes. They should have a UV filter and should comply with the British standard BS2724:198
  • Some medicines (e.g. amiodarone, chlorpromazine and doxycycline) can make your skin more sensitive to the sun and more likely to burn. Check the manufacturer's patient information leaflet of any medicines you are taking to make sure that you are not at risk.

When To See A Doctor

Any moles that change size, shape, colour or become itchy, swollen or bleed should be reported to a doctor.

Additional Information

Leaflets about malaria, insect bites and stings and travel sickness are also available at this pharmacy.