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Summer is coming: protect skin against UV radiation by using sunscreen

Posted: 06/05/2021

May is World Melanoma Month and the week commencing 3 May is Sun Awareness Week.

Melanoma is the most common type of skin cancer and is associated with moles or skin changes. According to the British Association of Dermatologists, melanoma is the fifth most common cancer in the UK with almost 16,000 new cases diagnosed and 2,285 deaths caused per year. The incidence of melanoma in the UK has risen faster than any other common cancer. Over the past decade, the number of people diagnosed with melanoma has increased by almost half.

So, what are the causes of melanoma? The most preventable cause is too much exposure to sunlight and artificial sources of ultraviolent light (ie sunbeds).

Ultraviolet or UV radiation from the sun is transmitted in three wavelengths – UVA, UVB and UVC. The latter does not penetrate the earth’s atmosphere and therefore people do not need to protect against these rays. UVA radiation is associated with skin aging and skin cancer. Unlike UVB, UVA radiation can pass through glass and penetrates more deeply into the skin. UVB radiation is associated with sunburn and is strongly linked to melanoma as well as other types of skin cancer such as basal cell carcinoma.

There is no such thing as a safe tan. A ‘tan’, simply put, is skin damage.

The best way to avoid UVA/UVB exposure is to stay indoors or fully cover up in the sun with long-sleeved clothing, a hat and sunglasses. As this is not always possible, practicable or realistic, it is important that individuals understand how to protect their skin against harmful UV radiation.

Sunscreen will provide some protection to the skin against both UVA and UVB radiation.

There are two types of sunscreen: organic/chemical and inorganic/physical. The former works by absorbing UV radiation and the latter reflects the UV radiation away from the skin.

What about SPF? In the UK, all sunscreens are labelled with an SPF (sun protection factor). This indicates the amount of protection the sunscreen offers from UVB radiation. SPFs in the UK are rated on a scale of 2 to 50+. Low protection is SPF 6 to 14, medium protection is SPF 15 to 29, high protection is SPF 30 to 50 and very high protection is SPF 50+. The British Association of Dermatologists recommends a minimum of SPF 30 in order to ensure skin has sufficient protection from UVB radiation.

Sunscreens in the UK also have a UVA star rating which ranges from one to five, with one being minimum protection and five being ultra protection. The British Association of Dermatologists suggests a UVA rating of four to five (ie superior or ultra protection).

Sunscreens with both UVA and UVB protection are often known as broad spectrum sunscreens.

It is all well and good understanding why sunscreen is needed and what the label on the bottle means, but correct application is essential. Recent studies have revealed that most people apply less than half of the recommended amount of sunscreen required to give a good level of protection against UVA and UVB radiation. The recommendation from the British Association of Dermatologists is a minimum of six full teaspoons (approximately 36 grams) or 2mg per cm² to cover the average adult. Applying less than this will reduce the protection disproportionately; for example, applying half the suggested amount actually lessens the protection by two thirds. The simple rule is more is better.

Fortunately, the trends are looking more positive. The days of sunbeds and lying out in the sun all day appear to be declining and awareness of sun protection is increasing, as are UK sales of sunscreen. With summer approaching, it is important to take steps to prevent too much exposure to the sun. Recognising the importance of sun protection and regularly applying sunscreen will help to reduce the risk of melanoma and keep skin healthy.

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