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Survey shows most people ignore sun safety advice despite fears of skin cancer

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by Cancer Research UK | News

10 May 2003

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Cancer Research UK reports a worrying gap between how much people know about skin cancer and how little they actually do to protect themselves in the sun against the country’s most common form of the disease.

A survey commissioned for the charity’s SunSmart campaign found that 75 per cent of the 1,850 people questioned are concerned that exposure to the sun can result in skin cancer.

But less than 30 per cent use shade and less than 40 per cent bother to apply high factor sunscreen despite the fact that more than 65,000 cases of skin cancer are diagnosed in the UK each year.

The survey, conducted by the Office of National Statistics on the eve of Sun Awareness Week (May 12-17 2003), found that overall women are more sun aware than men and that middle-aged people are better informed about the sun’s dangers than the under 25’s and over 65’s.

But all too often behaviour failed to correspond with knowledge. Only six per cent of those surveyed avoid the midday sun. Fewer than five per cent cover up with hats, t-shirts and sunglasses. And just 0.3 per cent said they would have their suspect moles checked by a doctor.

The survey also revealed that 70% of people still think suntans make them look healthier or more attractive.

Among 16-24 year olds, 73 per cent believed that exposure to the sun might cause skin cancer. But only a quarter of this age-group apply high factor sunscreen as protection. And fewer than 20 per cent cover up or seek shade from the sun.

Dr Charlotte Proby, consultant dermatologist at Cancer Research UK, says: “The results of this survey are concerning. Although it is encouraging that many people are aware of the risk of skin cancer, too many of them are still not protecting themselves against the sun’s damaging rays by failing to stay in the shade, cover up or apply high factor sunscreen.

“It is particularly worrying that so many of the young people questioned in the survey are being slow to change their bad habits, because it is skin damage early in life that is most likely to result in skin cancer later on.”

Sara Hiom, co-ordinator of Cancer Research UK’s SunSmart campaign, says: “The SunSmart campaign is about both reinforcing sun safety messages and encouraging people to act on their knowledge. The Australian sun awareness campaign has shown that with a sustained ‘drip drip’ approach to information people will eventually change their habits. This success has finally resulted in a drop in the number of skin cancer cases in their younger generation. In contrast, our skin cancer rates are climbing. It’s not enough to know how to be safer in the sun, people must actually take steps to protect themselves.”

Professor Siân Griffiths, President of the Faculty of Public Health Medicine in London, has experienced skin cancer herself. She says: “I was working as the Director of Public Health for Oxfordshire when I was diagnosed with a malignant melanoma, and was therefore well aware of the steps I should have taken to be safer in the sun. But like many people I didn’t actually do it.

“Having skin cancer was a very traumatic experience for me and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. Thankfully it is largely preventable by being sensible in the sun, so I really urge people to actively use their knowledge and follow the SunSmart messages.”


SunSmart is co-ordinated by Cancer Research UK with funding from the UK Health Departments.