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13 myths about sun safety debunked

Headshot of Beth Vincent
by Beth Vincent | In depth

31 July 2023

6 comments 6 comments

Two adults and a child sitting on a picnic blanket
Credit: Kerry Harrison


Although unpredictable weather means it might not always feel like it, summer is here! Most of us look forward to longer, sunnier days but it’s important to stay safe when the sun is strong.

There’s a lot of misinformation out there but one thing we do know is that damage to our skin from the sun is the number one cause of melanoma, the most serious type of skin cancer. In fact, our latest analysis showed that melanoma skin cancer cases in the UK have reached an all-time high.

That might sound scary, but the good news is that up to 9 in 10 UK cases could be prevented by being safe in the sun.

So, read on to find out the truth behind some common myths and how to stay sun safe this summer!

Myth #1: The sun is strongest when it’s hottest

Surprisingly not necessarily. UV rays from the sun cause the skin damage that can lead to cancer, but UV rays aren’t hot and you can’t feel them. The heat of the sun comes from a different type of ray, called infrared.

UV rays are strongest when the sun is highest in the sky, which in the UK summer is between 11am and 3pm, although it can be different in other countries. The UV index tells us how strong the sun’s UV rays are. You can find out the UV index on most weather forecasts, your phone weather app or the Met Office website. It starts at 1 when the UV is low and in theory has no upper limit, but in the UK it’s very rare to see levels above 9. In other parts of the world it can be even higher – regularly hitting 10 in the Mediterranean and 16 around the equator! When the UV index is 3 (moderate) or higher, you should consider taking action to protect your skin.

Temperature tends to be highest slightly later in the afternoon and varies more than the UV level throughout the day. So if we’re lucky enough to see some warm and sunny days this summer, consider getting out and enjoying the nice weather later in the day. It’ll often still be warm and the risk of burning won’t be as high. But don’t forget, no matter what the time of day is, if the UV level is 3 or above, think about taking sun safety measures.

Graphic showing sunburn risk depending on UV index. Low from 1-2, moderate to high from 3-7, very high from 8-9+

Myth #2: People with darker skin don’t get sunburnt

Anyone can get sunburnt – including people with darker skin. But your risk of getting sunburnt and how sunburn looks and feels will depend on your skin type. For people with lighter skin tones, sunburned skin is usually red, sore, and swollen. In people with darker skin tones, sunburned skin might not change colour but will often feel irritated, itchy, tender and sore.

Generally, in the UK, people with lighter skin tones are at higher risk of sunburn. But just because people with darker skin tones might have a lower risk, doesn’t mean there is no risk at all.

Myth #3: I need to get as much sun as possible to get enough vitamin D

A bit of sun can help our bodies to make vitamin D which is important for things like healthy bones. How much sun is required to do this will vary from person to person. In the UK summer, people with lighter skin tones only need brief sun exposure, while people with darker skin tones may need more time for the body to make enough vitamin D.

Whatever your skin tone, there’s no need to sunbathe or risk sunburn in order to get vitamin D. Once your body has made enough, it’ll start to break down any extra vitamin D that’s made, so spending even longer in the sun won’t help. Plus, you can get vitamin D from your diet or supplements. In fact, the UK government recommends that everyone considers taking a daily vitamin D supplement during the autumn and winter.

People with darker skin tones are also more likely to have low vitamin D so the NHS recommends taking a daily supplement throughout the year. This recommendation also applies to all children aged 1-4 and all babies unless they have more than 500ml of infant formula a day. If you are ever concerned about your vitamin D levels, speak to your GP.

Myth #4: I can’t get sunburnt on cloudy days

You might hear this one during gloomy UK summers but it’s not true! Skin-damaging UV rays can pass through clouds.

So, check the UV index even if it’s cloudy outside. Remember, if it’s 3 (moderate) or above, the sun can be strong enough to cause sunburn, even if it’s cloudy, especially in people who burn easily and/or have a lighter skin tone.

Two people sitting in the sun
Credit: John Nicholson

Myth #5: Sunscreen is the best way to protect myself from too much sun

When it comes to protecting your skin, there’s much more to think about than just sunscreen. The best ways to stay safe in the sun are to spend time in the shade, especially between 11am and 3pm in the UK, and cover up with clothes that cover your shoulders, a wide-brimmed hat and UV protection sunglasses. Sunscreen is a great extra line of defence for the parts of your body you can’t cover. Make sure you put lots on and reapply regularly throughout the day – at least every two hours and after swimming, towelling or sweating. That applies to products that claim to be once-a-day as well – all sunscreens require reapplication, despite what the label may say.

Myth #6: Aftersun products repair the damage done by sunburn

No, they don’t. While aftersun products may soothe the unpleasant symptoms of sunburn, they won’t fix any damage that was done to the DNA inside your cells. So, if you start to notice the signs of burning, seek shade and cover up immediately. Don’t spend more time in the sun that day – even with sunscreen. And don’t rely on aftersun to fix the damage because it can’t. You know your skin best so try to learn from any time you get caught out.

Myth #7: I’ve been sunburnt before, so there’s no point in protecting myself now – the damage is already done

First of all, getting sunburnt doesn’t mean that you will definitely develop skin cancer. Your body can repair some of the damage, but sunburn once every two years can triple the risk of developing melanoma, compared to never getting burnt. This is because not all the damage is repaired and it builds up over time. That actually means that it’s never too late to start protecting your skin by seeking shade, covering up and applying sunscreen, because you can stop the damage building even further and keep your risk as low as possible.

Myth #8: The sun in the UK isn’t strong enough to give me sunburn

It can be – especially between mid-March and mid-October, even if it doesn’t feel warm or it’s a cloudy day. It’s easy to underestimate how strong the sun can be here and get caught out. So don’t forget to check the UV index! Another handy tip is to use the ‘shadow rule’ to work out when the sun is strong. Simply look at your shadow and if it’s shorter than your height, the sun is high in the sky, the UV rays are strong and it’s time to take extra care.

Infographic showing that UV rays are strongest when your shadow is shorter than you

Myth #9: More expensive sunscreens provide better protection

This isn’t the case. The most important thing is actually the SPF and star rating, rather than price or brand. Sunscreens are tightly regulated in the UK, so you can trust what the label says. It’s also really important to find a product that works well for you – pick something that you find easy to apply, that you like the feel and smell of. This is because you need to wear lots of sunscreen to get the SPF on the bottle and you also need to reapply regularly throughout the day. And if you like the way it feels, you’re more likely to do that!

Myth #10: Sunscreen lasts forever

Many of us will find an old bottle of sunscreen at the back of the cupboard and think “I have no idea when I opened that”. But most sunscreens expire. Look out for a small open jar icon on the bottle with the number of months the product can be used after opening. If it’s out of date, it’s best to buy a new one. And remember, when it comes to protection, price doesn’t matter. It’s the SPF and star rating that does. So if you need to pick a cheaper product as a replacement, you’ll still be protected.

Like most cosmetics, sunscreens should be stored in a cool, dry place away from direct sunlight.

Myth #11: The UV lamps used for gel nail manicures cause cancer

Although these lamps give out UV radiation, it is very unlikely that someone would develop skin cancer after using them, even if they did so on a regular basis. UV nail lamps give out far less radiation than people are exposed to when they are outside in the sun or using a sun bed, so the overall risk to your health remains low.

Myth #12: The SPF in my makeup is enough

Sadly not. Even if your makeup label claims to offer sun protection, you’d need to apply several times the normal amount of foundation to get even close to the level of protection stated on the label. You’re also highly unlikely to reapply makeup regularly throughout the day, which is required to keep protected. So, if the weather means you need sunscreen on your face – sunscreen is the only thing that will do! Make-up or moisturiser with SPF won’t be enough to protect you from harmful UV rays.

Myth #13: You can’t get sun damage through glass

Indoors you’re mostly protected from sunburn (caused by UVB rays), but UVA rays which penetrate deeper into the skin can pass through glass. So if you spend lots of time doing something like driving or sitting in a conservatory when the sun is strong, then long-term you might be at risk of skin damage from UVA rays.

If you’re stuck by the window, protect your skin with clothes, a hat and UV-protection sunglasses. In the UK, the star rating on sunscreen bottles indicates the level of UVA protection given by the product, so also make sure to pick a sunscreen with 4 or more stars. Or look for the letters ‘UVA’ in a circle if you can’t see a star rating.

Now that we’ve shared some common misconceptions, here are 3 simple steps we can all take to protect ourselves from strong sun, whether in the UK or abroad.

  1. Seek Shade – Especially between 11am and 3pm in the UK. Take a break under trees, umbrellas and canopies, or go indoors.
  2. Cover Up – With clothes, a wide-brimmed hat and UV protection sunglasses. Clothing should cover your shoulders. The more skin that’s covered by your clothing, the better the protection.
  3. Apply Sunscreen – With at least SPF30 and 4 or 5 stars. Make sure to reapply it regularly and generously, especially after swimming, sweating, or towelling.

Staying safe in the sun reduces your risk of skin cancer, but the truth is that nobody can get their risk down to zero. Cancer can affect anyone. So if you ever do spot anything on your skin or under your nails that is unusual for you, don’t ignore it – talk to your doctor. They will want to hear from you. It’s unlikely that it will be cancer, but if it is, spotting it at an earlier stage means treatment is more likely to be successful. It really can make a difference.

    Comments

  • reyhan
    1 October 2023

    thanks a lot of informations

  • Dan
    6 September 2023

    Sit quietly in a dark room eating salad and drinking water, it’s the only way to stay alive.

  • Gary Healey
    4 August 2023

    A well explained article. If we do more to help ourselves then medical science will do the rest.

  • Mavis Sullivan
    3 August 2023

    An excellent article. What a pity many of us didn’t have this information in the 60s and 70s.
    I have had 2 basal cell cancers removed and am very lucky not to have melanoma. What we all did years ago to get a tan!!.

  • Barbara Helen Le Fevre
    3 August 2023

    The pages about skin cancer are very informative, and written in straightforward, easily understood language.
    Nor is it alarmist.

  • Doc Mills
    1 August 2023

    Good to see that you’ve removed “Tanned skin is a sign of good health” and “A ‘base tan’ will protect me on holiday” from your ‘myths’ list (as both of are true)

  • reply
    Amy Warnock
    14 August 2023

    Hi there,

    This article isn’t intended to be an exhaustive list of all sun safety myths. It is not true that tanned skin is a sign of good health or that a base tan will protect people on holiday.

    A tan is a sign that your skin is trying to protect itself from the damage the sun is doing. Skin damage isn’t just sunburn (that can be pinkness, redness, tenderness or itching, not just peeling or blistering), it can start before then, and it can build up over time. As damage builds up over time, the risk of developing skin cancer increases.

    A tan offers very little protection against the sun – some studies estimate that tanned skin offers a sun protection factor (SPF) of around 3, which is far lower than the SPF needed to enjoy the sun safely. The best way to stay safe when the sun is strong is to seek shade, cover up with clothes and a hat, and apply sunscreen regularly, whether at home or on holiday.

    Hope this helps,
    Amy

    Comments

  • reyhan
    1 October 2023

    thanks a lot of informations

  • Dan
    6 September 2023

    Sit quietly in a dark room eating salad and drinking water, it’s the only way to stay alive.

  • Gary Healey
    4 August 2023

    A well explained article. If we do more to help ourselves then medical science will do the rest.

  • Mavis Sullivan
    3 August 2023

    An excellent article. What a pity many of us didn’t have this information in the 60s and 70s.
    I have had 2 basal cell cancers removed and am very lucky not to have melanoma. What we all did years ago to get a tan!!.

  • Barbara Helen Le Fevre
    3 August 2023

    The pages about skin cancer are very informative, and written in straightforward, easily understood language.
    Nor is it alarmist.

  • Doc Mills
    1 August 2023

    Good to see that you’ve removed “Tanned skin is a sign of good health” and “A ‘base tan’ will protect me on holiday” from your ‘myths’ list (as both of are true)

  • reply
    Amy Warnock
    14 August 2023

    Hi there,

    This article isn’t intended to be an exhaustive list of all sun safety myths. It is not true that tanned skin is a sign of good health or that a base tan will protect people on holiday.

    A tan is a sign that your skin is trying to protect itself from the damage the sun is doing. Skin damage isn’t just sunburn (that can be pinkness, redness, tenderness or itching, not just peeling or blistering), it can start before then, and it can build up over time. As damage builds up over time, the risk of developing skin cancer increases.

    A tan offers very little protection against the sun – some studies estimate that tanned skin offers a sun protection factor (SPF) of around 3, which is far lower than the SPF needed to enjoy the sun safely. The best way to stay safe when the sun is strong is to seek shade, cover up with clothes and a hat, and apply sunscreen regularly, whether at home or on holiday.

    Hope this helps,
    Amy