An animal's guide to staying safe in the sun

Humans aren't the only ones who need to practise sun safety. These animals have a few tips.

white and blue cloudy sky

Photo by CHUTTERSNAP on Unsplash

Photo by CHUTTERSNAP on Unsplash

Did you know that making sure we stay safe in the sun could prevent up to 9 in 10 cases of melanoma, the most serious type of skin cancer?  

For some species, Cancer Research UK’s sun safety steps come naturally! Let’s take some inspiration from our animal friends and see how they: 

  • Spend time in the shade  
  • Cover up  
  • Use sunscreen (yes, really!) 
Two hippos in water. One is opening its mouth wide as if in shock.

Too much ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun can damage the DNA in our skin cells. If this damage builds up over time, it can lead to skin cancer. Sunburn is skin damage too, so getting sunburnt increases the risk of cancer.  Here in the UK, the sun’s rays can often be strong enough to damage skin between mid-March and mid-October, especially from 11am to 3pm.   

Animals that have evolved in sunny environments have developed adaptations to their bodies and behaviour that help to protect them from UV rays. Of course, they’re not trying to reduce their risk of cancer - mostly they're just trying to stay comfortable.

A hippo in a lake with a straw in its mouth. It looks like it is drinking the lake through the straw.

We humans have more options when it comes to protecting our skin – we can check the UV index to find out how strong the sun is today and then make sure that we’re enjoying it safely. So, let’s take a look at how some animals protect themselves and how we can build on their example: 

A group of elephants resting under the shade of a tree

Photo by Wandering Bo on Pexels

Photo by Wandering Bo on Pexels

Growing shade

Although elephants already have special genes that help to reduce their cancer risk, they also protect themselves from the sun by spending time in the shade. And, just when you thought they couldn't get any cuter, adult elephants provide shade for their babies by standing over them while they sleep!  

Shade is an important way to protect your skin from the sun. Elephants in the wild rely on trees, but remember sunlight can still get through the branches and leaves, so the shade of a building, awning or a parasol is even better.  

Video by ItzStock on Shutterstock

Video by ItzStock on Shutterstock

Glorious mud

Unlike many animals, elephants and rhinos aren’t protected from the sun by thick fur or feathers, so they cover up with mud or dust to stay cool and sun safe.  

Humans don't cover ourselves in mud (unless we’re at a spa). So, instead, think about wearing clothes with sleeves that cover your shoulders, a wide-brimmed hat, and UV-protection sunglasses to help protect your skin when you're not in the shade. 

And, speaking of sunglasses… 

a polar bear looking straight at the camera. Its eyes are very dark..

Photo by evaurban on Shutterstock

Photo by evaurban on Shutterstock

Looking cool

A snowy habitat means lots of reflected glare from the sun. That’s why polar bears have not one, not two, but three sets of eyelids, one of which (called the nictitating membrane) helps protect their eyes from glare.  

Humans don't have this built-in sun protection for our eyes, so we need to wear sunglasses. Make sure yours have: 

  • A 'CE Mark', which shows they meet the UV protection standards 
  • UV 400 and/or 100% UV protection written on the label or sticker  
  • Protection at the side of the eye  

Plus, however hot it might get outside, wearing sunglasses helps us look cool (although still probably not as cool as a polar bear).

Don't try this at home

You don't see a lot of hippos in the sunscreen aisle at the chemist (they're more interested in bath bombs and waterproof makeup). That's because they produce their own sunscreen through their skin. Sometimes called 'blood sweat' because of its reddish colour, it also acts as an antibiotic

For humans, sunscreen (or sun cream) completes the sun safety picture, helping protect any parts of our skin that our clothes don’t cover. We're not hippos, so don't try and make your own: always buy from a reputable retailer and make sure it is at least SPF 30 and 4 or 5 stars.

While hippos sweat their sunscreen on, we sweat ours off, so use it generously and reapply often, especially after sweating, swimming or drying off with a towel.  

Oh, snap

We've looked at some examples of sun safe behaviour from our animal friends, but that doesn't mean that we can follow their lead all the time.

Crocodiles bask in the sun to raise their body temperature. That’s because, unlike mammals, crocodiles are cold-blooded, so they can't generate their own body heat and need to get it from outside.

A bit of sun helps our bodies to make vitamin D, but most of us can get enough from short periods of sun on our skin as we go about our day. We don't need to sunbathe to get enough vitamin D or regulate our temperature, and sunscreen shouldn't be used to spend longer in the sun.  

A polar bear swimming on its back in the sun

Photo by AHNsd on Shutterstock

Photo by AHNsd on Shutterstock

A polar bear swimming on its back in the sun

Bear in mind

So, when the sun is strong, follow these steps:

  • Seek shade
  • Cover up
  • Use sunscreen

For more information about sun safety and skin cancer, head to our webpages.