The most important way to prevent skin cancer is to protect your skin from the harmful effects of the sun's rays. This leaflet gives tips on how to protect your skin from the most damaging ultraviolet rays. There are separate, more detailed leaflets on the different types of skin cancer, called 'Cancer of the Skin - An Overview', 'Cancer of the Skin - Non-melanoma' and 'Cancer of the Skin - Melanoma'. One of the most important things is to protect children's skins from the sun. The skin of a child is more sensitive to sun damage which can lead to skin cancer in later life.
About 9 in 10 non-melanoma skin cancers (this includes basal cell carcinoma (BCC) and squamous cell carcinoma (SCC), and about 6 in 10 melanoma skin cancers (the most serious form of skin cancer) are thought to be caused by excessive exposure to the sun. In particular, episodes of sunburn greatly increase your risk of developing skin cancer.
It is the ultraviolet (UV) radiation in the sunshine which does the damage. There are two types of UV radiation - UVA and UVB (see later). Skin cells that are damaged are at greater risk of becoming abnormal and cancerous.
Sun damage can also cause other skin problems to develop. For example, premature skin ageing (wrinkles, loss of elasticity, etc) and solar keratoses (also called actinic keratoses - roughened growths on the skin that are noncancerous).
All people of all ages should protect their skin, but it is even more vital to protect children. Although skin cancer is rare in children, the amount of sun exposure during childhood is thought to increase the risk of developing skin cancer in adult life. Therefore, take extra care with children, and keep babies out of the sun completely.
If you have pale skin, red or fair hair, and freckles, you have the type of skin which burns most easily. This puts you at increased risk of sun-related skin damage and you should take extra care to protect your skin - NEVER allow yourself to burn. Skin cancers, especially melanoma, are uncommon in nonwhite skin types.
In the UK, stay in the shade or indoors as much as possible between 11 am and 3 pm in the summer months (May to September). This applies all year round in hotter countries nearer to the equator. This middle time of the day is when the sun's rays are the strongest. Trees, umbrellas and canopies can all provide good shade.
Cover up the body as much as possible when you are out in the sunshine:
You should apply sunscreen of at least sun protection factor (SPF) 15 (SPF 30 for children or people with pale skin) which also has high UVA protection. SPF gives a guide to how much sun protection is afforded by a particular sunscreen. The higher the SPF, the greater the protection. The SPF label shows the protection against UVB, which leads to sunburn and the damage that can cause skin cancer.
It is also important that your high SPF sunscreen should also have a high level of UVA protection. UVA can cause ageing effects of the skin and also potentially the damage that can cause skin cancer. Sunscreens with high UVA protection will have a high number of stars (these range from 0 to 5).
Be sure to cover areas which are sometimes missed, such as the lips, ears, around the eyes, neck, scalp (particularly if you are bald or have thinning hair), backs of hands and tops of feet.
You should not think of sunscreen as an alternative to avoiding the sun or covering up. It is used in addition. Sunscreens should not be used to allow you to remain in the sun for longer - use them only to give yourself greater protection. No sunscreen is 100% effective and so it provides less protection than clothes or shade. Ideally:
The Met Office provides information called the Solar UV Index with their weather forecasts. The index is given as a figure in a triangle over the maps they use when giving forecasts. Basically, the higher the index (from 1 to 10), the greater the risk from the sun, and the more care you should take of your skin when outside. See their website (given below) for details.
Vitamin D is vital for good health. Vitamin D is made in the skin with the help of sunlight. Sunlight is actually the main source of vitamin D, as there is very little found in the foods that we eat.
This means that to be healthy you need a certain amount of sun exposure. There is concern that some people may go to the extreme of avoiding the sun altogether and then become deficient in vitamin D. The aim is to enjoy the sun sensibly, so as to make enough vitamin D, whilst not increasing the risk of skin cancer.
It is estimated that, to prevent deficiency of vitamin D, we need 2-3 sun exposures per week in the summer months (April to September). Each exposure should last 20-30 minutes and be to bare arms and face. It needs to occur in direct sunlight and not through a window. It is not the same as suntanning and sunburn should be avoided at all costs. (See separate leaflet called 'Vitamin D Deficiency' for more information.)
It is recommended that fair-skinned people who avoid the sun rigorously to reduce the risk of melanoma should consider supplementing their intake of vitamin D as long as there are no medical contra-indications.
Run by Cancer Research UK, the UK's national skin cancer prevention campaign.
The Met Office is the UK's National Weather Service.
From the British Association of Dermatologists.