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How to protect your skin while sunbathing

Lesley Dobson

We all know too much sun can cause cancer, but still we love a tan. How can we enjoy the sun safely?

Don't take risks in the sun

Every year, more than 75,000 new cases of skin cancer are diagnosed in the UK. Most of them – over 67,000 - are the less dangerous variety, non-melanoma skin cancers. But experts agree that this figure may be too low, as many cases go unreported. One study has estimated that over 100,000 cases of this type of skin cancer are diagnosed every year. That’s a lot of people with a potentially disfiguring – and even fatal – condition.

There are two main types of skin cancer, non-melanoma and melanoma. Non-melanoma cancers are more easily treated and have a 95% survival rate. However, if left untreated, one type, squamous cell carcinomas, can spread to other parts of the body. In 2004, 540 people died from non-melanoma skin cancer. Almost 80% of these skin cancers are diagnosed in people aged 60 and over.

When you look at the figures for malignant melanoma, the most serious type of skin cancer, the increase in the number of cases is striking. In men, the incidence of malignant melanoma quadrupled, to 3,500 cases a year in the 25 years up to 2003. In women, the incidence trebled, to 4,500 cases a year.

The sad truth is that many of these cases could have been avoided.

‘Two thirds of these cases occur in the over-50s, ’explains Rebecca Russell, Sunsmart campaign manager for Cancer Research UK. ‘And sun exposure is the main risk factor.’

How to stay safe

You don’t have to behave like a hermit to stay safe in the sun, but you do need to treat it with respect. A Cancer Research UK survey discovered that a lot of adults still believe that to tan you need to burn first. But burning your skin will damage it, age it and increase your risk of skin cancer.

Whether you’re on holiday abroad, or at home, take simple precautions. Wear loose cotton clothing that will cover you up, a sunhat and sunglasses. Put sunscreen on before you go out and keep reapplying it. Check how old it is - if it’s past its use-by date, it may not protect you as well as it should. Take extra special care of any babies and children you have with you. Their skin is very sensitive and can easily burn.

You’re more at risk if you have fair skin that burns easily, lots of freckles or moles, red or fair hair, have been sunburnt before, or have a history of skin cancer in your family.

Follow the SunSmart Code from Cancer Research UK

S pend time in the shade between 11 and 3

M ake sure you never burn

A im to cover up with a t-shirt, hat and sunglasses

R emember to take extra care with children

T hen use factor 15 sunscreen

Signs to watch out for

‘Early detection is really important,’ says Rebecca Russell. ‘Know your skin and look out for any changes. Not all changes mean you have cancer, but if you notice a skin growth or sore, talk to your GP. If you catch it early and treat it early, skin cancer can be cured.’

Non-melanoma cancers

Basal cell cancer is the most common of the non-melanoma cancers. These can start as a small lump on your skin, which is smooth, pearly and waxy. They may bleed or develop a crust, and never quite heal, or may look like a patch of excema. These cancers grow slowly, often on areas of exposed skin.

Squamous cell cancers often look scaly. They may have a hard, horny cap and are tender if you touch them. Watch out for lumps, sores or ulcers that may bleed easily, and red scaly spots that won’t heal. This type of non-melanoma cancer can spread around the body if not treated.

Signs of non-melanoma skin cancer

  • a new growth or sore that won’t heal
  • a spot, mole or sore that itches or hurts
  • a mole or growth that bleeds, crusts or scabs

If you notice any of these signs, which do not go away within a month, or see changes to a mole freckle or patch of skin that happens quickly – taking just weeks or months – see your GP straight away.

Malignant melanomas

About one cancer in 100 is a malignant melanoma. Your risk of malignant melanoma increases with age. Because it has a high risk of spreading to other parts of your body it’s important to see your GP as soon as you notice unusual changes in your skin.

Signs of malignant melanoma

  • a change in the size, height or shape of a mole, particularly an increasingly irregular outline
  • a change in colour, including darkening and different colours developing
  • a mole that itches, bleeds or is painful
  • new moles growing around the original mole

Cancer Research UK’s ABCD rule is a helpful guide to checking your moles.

  • Asymmetry - the two halves of your mole do not look the same
  • Border - the edges of your mole are irregular, blurred or jagged
  • Diameter - many melanomas are at least 6mm in diameter, the size of a pencil eraser
  • Colour - the colour of your mole is uneven, with more than one shade


The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.