Stay safe in the sun this summer

Sheena Dryden, Clinical Nurse Specialist for skin cancers at the Dermatology department of the Lauriston Building talks about how to keep sun-safe outdoors this summer.

Be sun-aware
We can all get caught out unawares by the sun and I think that’s one of the biggest problems in Scotland. Because our weather is so varied, we’re often unprepared for periods of great sunshine – we can start off a day in summer with a fleece on and want to be in shorts by the end of the same day! When we’re abroad we expect the blue skies and the heat and are prepared for it, but here we don’t tend to think about using sun protection, what with the changeable weather. 

We need the sun for vitamin D, so it’s good to get at least 10-20 minutes in the daylight every day to maintain a healthy level of vitamin D. However, everyone is at risk of melanomas and other skin cancers, even if you tan well or have darker skin, so even on cloudy or breezy days, always try and remember to apply sunscreen regularly to keep protected if you’re outdoors. The months between April and the end of September are the highest-risk months, with the most affecting times of day being between 10am and 3pm.

Staying safe
We recommend an SPF (sun protection factor) of 30 or above, and UVA protection of at least 3 stars or smiley faces. SPF protects against the UVB (shorter burning) rays, and UVA are the deeper, more damaging rays that age the skin and are thought to cause some forms of skin cancer. Sunscreen must be applied liberally over the skin, because if it is rubbed in, this halves its efficacy. You need the thick layer of sunscreen to properly protect you. Some people have SPF in their facial make-up, but that’s only ever a maximum of factor 15, which when it’s rubbed in brings it down to 7.5, so it’s always better to have extra protection on as well. The basic principle for safety is that if you can see your skin, so can the sun!

In terms of clothing, the head is very vulnerable, even if you have hair, so it’s important to keep it covered with a hat. Plus, remember to cover your ears and the back of your neck when you’re out in the sun, in addition to wearing sunglasses and tightly-woven clothing.

Things to remember
Sunscreen needs to be reapplied every couple of hours, and always after you have been swimming, towelling dry or perspiring. Apply evenly onto your skin, without forgetting hands and feet. It’s also worth getting a friend or family member to help apply sun cream to your back, because it’s so easy to miss parts of it when you do it yourself.

As soon as you start to get red you should move out of the sun. However, the problem with this is that on holiday you could be sitting under a parasol but you can still get reflection off the sand, the decking of a boat or light pavements. Anywhere close to the water is also dangerous as water is very reflective. So when we say ‘out of the sun’, we mean right indoors, and also avoiding areas like conservatories or inside cars – contrary to popular belief, you can still get burnt through glass. 

Keeping children safe
The advice for babies is simple – they should not be out in the sun. Young children should have cream of at least SPF 50 applied regularly, and minimal doses of being out in the sun, with a special effort being made to keep them directly out of the sun between 10am and 3pm. For families this can be quite a challenge when you’re trying to keep the kids occupied during the Easter and summer break and with outdoor activities. However, kids are often up early and that would be the ideal time to take them out. The challenge is thinking of creative ways around keeping them indoors at those times. Do as the locals in the Mediterranean do and take leisurely lunches inside and siestas!

What to do if you get bad sunburn
If you get sunburnt make sure to keep hydrated with lots of water (avoiding any alcohol or caffeinated drinks), and try to keep your body temperature down, for example with a cool shower and resting in a cool room. If you or a family member gets seriously burnt and you’re unsure of what to do, seek medical advice from your GP or call NHS 24 on 111 for guidance. If there’s a lot of redness and blistering, or you are showing signs of severe burns, medical attention may be required. Headaches, nausea, vomiting and sometimes shivery episodes can also be signs of heatstroke, which can be serious.

Useful links
NHS Inform’s tips for staying safe in the sun.

YouTube video: David Cornfield Melanoma Fund - Dear 16 Year Old Me.

Teenage Cancer Trust’s ‘Shunburn: stay safe in the sun’ video.