12th June 2023

Topical or what? With the current weather conditions a blog by Dr Hugo De La Peña MD, PhD, FRCP on summer sun safety couldn’t be more apt. Hugo is a renowned cancer specialist, Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians and Cancer Research UK ambassador. He took part in a recent Cancer Research TV campaign to help raise much-needed funds for clinical trials. He’s helped raise hundreds of thousands of pounds by taking part in the London Marathon 2023 and Race for Life events across the UK. Dr Hugo is an NHS consultant and an educational and motivational speaker on cancer, its prevention, treatment and cure.

Summer sun safety
Dr Hugo de la Pena talks about summer sun safety

Not a lesson on avoiding the sun

Let me start first by stressing that the benefits from sunlight are MONUMENTAL so this is not a lesson on avoiding the sun. Feeling the warm sunshine on your face will give you a few seconds of instant inner peace. The benefits of our sun on our mental health are priceless and countless. 

If you’re on your own, the sun will make you appreciate the nature around you even more. And, for a lot of people, the sunny days will make you want to socialise with family and friends – especially getting together for outdoor activities. As always, I don’t tell people what to do, my advice is for people to take it or leave it. It’s based on scientific data, but also on life experience. I had successful treatment for an early skin cancer caused by sun exposure.

A British thing

I don’t deny it’s a very British thing to do, for boys and men to get their shirts off as soon as the sun shines. And for some women to sunbathe in their bikinis in the park. There’s nothing wrong with that at all, but remember that it’s the chronic unprotected sun exposure that causes skin damage and cancer.  It’s almost impossible to get skin cancer without sun exposure. I myself had a small and early skin cancer in my arm called squamous cell carcinoma. These cancers are slow growing and, in my case, I got successful treatment with a chemotherapy cream. Other cancers of the skin though, melanomas, are far more serious, aggressive and lethal if diagnosed late. 

Here are some tips to help you enjoy the sunshine in a healthy way.

Don’t be a sitting duck

Be aware of the sun when you’re not meaning or wanting to get exposed, for example whilst driving. If you have a long commute or a long drive when going on holiday, your right arm (if you are the driver) and face can get exposed to the sun for hours without realising. Skin cancers in the right forearm and face are very common.

If you go to a music festival, the horse races, a football game, Wimbledon, the F1 race, beer gardens, etc, you could be sitting or standing at the same location and can get exposed to the sun for hours without realising. 

Ergo, it’s always a good idea to carry sun block as routine – whether you need o or not. Then, if you find yourself in a situation where you can’t leave or move and the sun is beating down, you can put on sun block on the spot. In fact, why not put it on any way?

If you scratch my back, I will scratch yours

When out with friends at beer gardens, the beach, the pool and BBQs, you’ll have lots of fun. But once you have a few drinks, you will stay out in the sun for longer and will become inadvertently more careless. Thus, it’s a good idea to have someone in the group to remind people every two hours to put on sun cream again. As we have someone who’s a named driver – have someone who is a named ‘sun cream’ nagger!

More swimming, more sun cream

When swimming outdoors, even if your sun cream is waterproof, it will last less time than usual. When you swim you also get double sun exposure. The first hit from direct sun on to you, but also a second hit on reflection from the water with extra sun bouncing back to you, known as the mirror effect. So, when in the water, reapply sun cream every hour, instead of every two hours. Ask someone with you to remind you and support each other in re-applying sun block on a regular basis.

Children First

As with any emergency, children (and teenagers) always come first when it comes to summer sun safety. Pay attention to their behaviour in the sun. Artificial tanning ‘sunbeds’ are forbidden in the under 18s in the UK thanks to a proven link between them and skin cancer. But try to discourage older children from using them. 

When basking in the sun to get a tan, encourage them to put on sun block often and to sit in a shady spot or under a large shady umbrella. Roasting their skin in the sun is dangerous because roasting is exactly what will happen with the risk of blistering.

Toddlers need to wear sun suits when swimming or at the beach that most of their body because they are particularly vulnerable to the sun.

Cancer does not discriminate over skin colour but …

Yet when it comes to skin cancer, there is no doubt that the fairer your skin is, the more at risk you are. So, if you’re as white as a friendly ghost or have lots of lovely cute little freckles, take extra care, because you are most at risk.  In the sunshine ensure sun block, shade and a hat are your best friends for your own summer sun safety.

Further – did you know that melanin production – the thing that gives you your tan – has a cut-off point?

Don’t stay outside for longer than your skin can create melanin. Melanin is the pigment responsible for tanning. Everyone has a melanin cut-off point, which is usually 2 to 3 hours. After this amount of time, your skin will not get darker in a certain day. If you tan past that point, you’ll be putting your skin in harm’s way. Find out more here.

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