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Six sun safety myths debunked by Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute expert

With some welcome spells of sunshine expected in Cambridge over the next few days, Cancer Research UK (CRUK) and NIVEA SUN have joined forces to help people enjoy the sun safely.

A campaign encouraging people to protect their skin from too much exposure to the sun’s UV rays comes following new CRUK analysis showing cases of melanoma, the most serious type of skin cancer, have reached an all-time high of 17,500 per year in the UK – including 1,600 in the East of England.

Applying suncream
Applying suncream

While deaths from the disease are dropping thanks to research and improvements in early diagnosis and treatment, latest projections show those cases could increase by around 50 per cent over the next 20 years.

Damage to our skin from the sun is the number one cause of melanoma, but the good news is almost nine in 10 cases in the UK each year could be prevented by being safe in the sun.

Among experts sharing advice and tips on sun safety is Dr Amit Roshan, a melanoma surgeon and researcher at the University of Cambridge’s CRUK Cambridge Institute.

Here, Dr Roshan debunks six sun safety myths and shares three simple steps we can all take to help protect ourselves.

Myth one – Sunscreen that’s more expensive offers better protection

The most important thing is the SPF and star rating, rather than price or brand.

It’s also important to remember to put on enough sunscreen and reapply it regularly, at least every two hours and after swimming, towelling, dressing or sweating – that even goes for once-a-day sunscreens.

Myth two – People with darker skin don’t get sunburnt

Anyone can get sunburnt, including people with darker skin. But your risk of getting sunburnt and how sunburn feels will depend on your skin type.

For people with lighter skin tones, sunburned skin is usually red, sore and swollen. For people with darker skin tones, sunburned skin might not change colour, but will often feel irritated, itchy, tender and sore.

Generally, in the UK, people with lighter skin tones are at higher risk of sunburn. But just because people with darker skin tones might have a lower risk, this doesn’t mean there’s no risk at all.

Myth three – The SPF in my make-up is enough

Sadly not. Even if your makeup label claims to offer sun protection, you’d need to apply several times the normal amount of foundation or face cream to get even close to the level of protection stated on the bottle.

You’re also highly unlikely to reapply makeup regularly throughout the day, as is required to keep protected.

If the weather means you need sunscreen on your face, sunscreen is the only thing that will do!

Myth four – I need to get as much sun as possible to get enough vitamin D

We all need a bit of sun to make vitamin D. How much sun will vary from person to person. People with lighter skin tones only need brief sun exposure whilst people with darker skin tones may need a little more time for the body to make enough vitamin D.

Whatever your skin tone, there’s no need to sunbathe or risk sunburn in order to get vitamin D. Once your body has made enough it will start to break down any extra vitamin D that’s made, so spending even longer in the sun won’t help.

Plus, you can get vitamin D from your diet or supplements. It’s a good idea to speak to your GP if you’re concerned about your vitamin D levels.

Myth five – After-sun products repair the damage done by sunburn

No, they don’t. While after-sun products may soothe the unpleasant symptoms of sunburn, they won’t fix any damage done to the DNA inside your cells.

If you start to notice signs of burning, seek shade and cover up immediately. Don’t spend more time in the sun that day – even with sunscreen – and don’t rely on after-sun to fix the damage because it can’t.

Myth six – The sun is strongest when it’s hottest

Surprisingly not. The heat of the sun doesn’t come from its skin-damaging UV rays.

UV rays are always strongest when the sun’s highest in the sky. In the UK summer that’s between 11am and 3pm, but it can be different in other countries.

The UV index tells us how strong the sun’s UV rays are and a UV forecast can be found on most phone weather apps. The UV index starts at 1 when the UV is low and goes all the way up to 13. When the UV index is 3 or higher, you should consider taking action to protect your skin.

Temperature tends to be highest slightly later in the afternoon and varies more than the UV level throughout the day, so consider getting out and enjoying the nice weather later in the day. It will often still be warm and the risk of burning won’t be as high.

Don’t forget, though, no matter what the time of day is, if the UV level is 3 or above, think about taking sun safety measures.

Dr Amit Roshan, of the CRUK Cambridge Institute. Picture: Melanoma Institute, Australia
Dr Amit Roshan, of the CRUK Cambridge Institute. Picture: Melanoma Institute, Australia

CRUK and NIVEA SUN recommend three simple steps we can all take to protect ourselves from the sun

1. Seek shade – especially between 11am and 3pm in the UK. Take a break under trees, umbrellas and canopies, or go indoors.

2. Cover up – with clothes, a wide-brimmed hat and UV protection sunglasses. Clothing should cover your shoulders. The more skin that’s covered by your clothing, the better the protection.

3. Apply sunscreen – with at least SPF15 and four or five stars. Make sure to reapply it regularly and generously, especially after swimming, sweating or towelling.

Spotting cancer early really can make a difference

Staying safe in the sun reduces your risk of skin cancer, but the truth is nobody can get their risk down to zero. Cancer can affect anyone. If you ever do spot anything on your skin or under your nails that’s unusual for you, don’t ignore it – talk to your doctor. They’ll want to hear from you. It’s unlikely it will be cancer, but if it is then spotting it at an earlier stage means treatment is more likely to be successful.

For more skin cancer and sun safety information visit www.cruk.org/sunsafety.

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