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Sun Safety: The Best Ways to Avoid and Treat Sunburn

There's nothing like a sunny day to boost your mood, or your tan, but spending time in the sun can be risky if you don't take the proper precautions. While small amounts of sun is good for your health, there’s no safe way to get a good tan. Too much sun exposure can lead to sunburn and more serious long-term consequences. Aim to strike a balance between protecting yourself from the sun and getting enough vitamin D from sunlight.

The sun produces three types of ultraviolet (UV) rays: UVA, UVB and UVC. Too much exposure to these rays can have a negative impact on your health, especially over long periods.

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Sunburn does not just happen on holiday either, you can burn in the UK too, even when it's cloudy. Sunburn is an obvious sign that you’ve been out in the sun too long, but skin damage isn't always visible. A survey by the British Association of Dermatologists suggests that more than three-quarters of Britons say they would not recognise signs of skin cancer. Under the skin's surface, ultraviolet rays from sunlight can alter your DNA, damaging and prematurely aging your skin, producing wrinkles, sagging and a rough, uneven texture with extra pigmentation. More seriously, overexposure to UV rays can cause genetic changes in your skin cells that may lead to skin cancers such as melanoma.

As a result of sunburn, your skin will normally start to flake and peel after a few days, and will usually fully heal within seven days. It is essential you find out more about the sun's effects on your body, and learn the simple steps you can take to help protect yourself from its more damaging effects, especially before going on holiday.

Sun safety tips

Use these tips to protect yourself in the sun and to help prevent sunburn:

  • Spend time in the shade when the sun is strongest. In the UK, this is between 11am and 3pm.
  • Reduce the risk of burning by applying adequate sun cream
  • Use a broad-spectrum sunscreen with SPF 30+
  • Cover up with suitable clothing and sunglasses
  • Take extra special care with children
  • Apply sunscreen 30 minutes before going out and reapply every 2 hours or after swimming

“Broad-spectrum” protection means that the sunscreen protects against both UVA and UVB rays. All sunscreen products protect against UVB rays, which are the main cause of sunburn. But, UVA rays are also harsh and can contribute to skin cancer and premature aging.

Remember, if you're going on holiday abroad, the UV index may be much higher than it is in the UK, even during the cooler months. This is why it’s particularly important to check the UV index when travelling abroad and remember to protect your skin accordingly. Studies show that even a short period of sunbathing on holiday can double your risk of melanoma.

Unfortunately, the first signs of sunburn can take two to three hours to appear, making it especially important to carefully monitor your skin during outdoor activities. How soon a sunburn begins depends on:

  • Your skin type
  • The sun's intensity
  • How long you're exposed to the sun

It's not only your skin that will be affected by the sun, your eyes are also vulnerable.

A day at the beach without proper eye protection can cause a temporary, but painful, burn to the surface of the eye, similar to sunburn. Sunlight reflected from surfaces like sand, concrete and water is particularly dangerous. Avoid looking directly at the sun, as this can cause permanent eye damage, and make sure to protect your eyes with full UV protection sunglasses.

How to deal with sunburn

If you do happen to get sunburnt it’s important to begin treating it as soon as you notice it. Make sure to take the appropriate measures and see your GP if the following occurs:

  • Your baby or young child has sunburn
  • You experience heat exhaustion or heat stroke, which can be very serious.
  • Your skin is blistered or swollen
  • Your temperature is very high, or you feel hot and shivery
  • You feel very tired, dizzy and sick
  • You have a headache and muscle cramps

In less serious cases, there are things you can do at home to soothe your sunburn:

  • Apply aftersun cream or spray
  • Get out of the sun as soon as possible
  • Cool your skin with a cool shower, bath or damp towel (take care not to let a baby or young child get too cold)
  • Drink plenty of water to prevent dehydration
  • Take painkillers
  • Cover sunburnt skin from direct sunlight until skin has fully healed

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Protection in the sun is essential and should not be overlooked. With skin damages as far as cancer, it is important you protect all areas that can be affected by strong UV rays so that you and your skin remain healthy.