When the sun is strong, it’s important to be SunSmart, by finding a shady spot, covering up with clothes and using sunscreen to protect ourselves from sunburn and skin cancer.
But how do you know what it’s like out there today? And does everyone have the same risk?
We got together with our partner Nivea Sun to create a new, free online app that helps work out your risk of burning, anywhere in the country, today. And it works on your mobile, as well as on a desktop – so you can use it before you go outside, or when you’re out and about.
Below, we’ve answered some burning questions you may have about how to use it, what affects your risk of burning, and how to protect yourself. Armed with our advice and your ‘SunSmartphone’, you can make sure sunburn doesn’t spoil your summer.
How does it work?
When you first load up the app on the Nivea Sun website, it asks you a few simple questions about how likely you are to burn or tan in strong sun, and about your skin colouring, which helps to work out your skin type (There’s more about UV Index and skin type on our SunSmart pages).
The app uses information about your location to find out the UV Index for your area via the Met office. The app merges this information to work out the risk of people with your skin type getting sunburnt – where you are, today.
So, what’s a UV Index?
The UV Index is appearing in more and more weather forecasts, including those from the Met Office. It tells you how strong the UV rays are at ground level, and takes account of things like cloud cover, so it’s really reliable.
The UV index ranges from 0 up to 10 – on a clear summer’s day in the UK the UV Index can reach seven around midday, but rarely more.
The higher the UV Index is, the bigger the risk of burning – but the UV level at which you need to start protecting your skin depends on your skin type.
Is skin type the same as skin colour?
They’re related, but they’re not the same. There are six skin types and they take account of your skin tone. But because skin type relates to how sensitive your skin is to UV damage, your skin’s behaviour in strong sun is really important.
Think about what would happen to your skin if you went out in full, strong sun – no shade, not covered up with clothes, no sunscreen. People who would always or usually burn have more sensitive skins than those who would always tan without burning first. And that’s a key point, Burning includes any pink or reddening of the skin.
Even if it isn’t a bad burn and even if you go on to develop a tanned appearance afterwards – it’s the initial reaction that counts.
Skin type isn’t an exact science though. It’s still important to notice what’s happening to your skin. If you start to burn, make sure you come out of the sun. And think about what else you could do to protect your skin on a similar day in the future.
You might also want to have another think about the skin type questions, if you burnt more easily than you thought you would.
Isn’t it obvious – you burn when it’s hot?
We could describe the UK summer in one word – ‘changeable’. So knowing if you’re at risk of sunburn is a bit tricky, especially because even though it’s turned cooler, cloudy or even rainy, it doesn’t necessarily mean there’s no risk. After all, the sun’s still in the sky.
It rained at the Glastonbury festival last weekend – but in the middle of the day the UV Index was still five or even six. This is strong enough to burn most people in the UK, but not everyone: those with the least sun-sensitive skin type (type VI) would still have a low risk of burning
Why does it matter, wouldn’t it be better to always protect my skin?
We all need some sunshine to make vitamin D – it’s important for strong and healthy bones. But we need to balance this against too much exposure to UV and the risk of skin cancer. Most people should be able to make enough vitamin D without risking sunburn.
You can read more about vitamin D on our SunSmart pages.
What’s the best way to protect myself?
The most effective ways to protect yourself from sunburn and skin damage are to spend time in the shade and cover up with clothing – a t-shirt, hat and sunglasses. You can read more about different types of shade and tips about clothing here.
What about sunscreen?
As a recent study by our researchers showed, sunscreen isn’t enough to protect your skin from damage. But it still has an important role to play. It helps protect the bits you can’t easily cover – like your face and arms. And if you can’t avoid being in the sun, it can help too.
Choose sunscreen with at least SPF 15 and a high star rating. It’s important to put enough on, or you won’t get the protection promised on the bottle. An adult needs about two teaspoonfuls to cover face and arms. And, it’s easily rubbed, sweated and washed off, so make sure you reapply regularly.
Never use sunscreen as an excuse to spend longer in the sun, or to stay out once you’ve started to burn.
Will the online app help me sunbathe safely?
No, because sunbathing isn’t a safe way to enjoy the sun. But the app will help you get outside and spend time in the sun safely, by helping you know when you need to head for shade, cover up with some clothes and put on some sunscreen.
Far from being a sign of health, a suntan is actually a sign that your body is trying to protect itself from damage. And sunburn is a clear indication that this damage has already happened.
We’d love to see more people celebrating their natural skin tone, but if you really want a tanned appearance, it’s safer to fake it.
What if I can’t use the online app right now (or at all)?
If you’ve already used the app, you should have an idea of what your skin type is. And if you can’t check the UV Index, a quick trick to judge the sun’s strength is to look at your shadow. If it’s shorter than you, that means the sun is strong and you could be at risk of burning, especially if you have a more sensitive skin type.
If you have any more burning questions, let us know in the comments below. Other than that, take a look at the app here, and give it a try.
Sarah Williams is a senior health information officer at Cancer Research UK
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