Sun care

This factsheet is for people who would like information about sun care.

Sun care means protecting skin from the harmful effects of the sun. Everyone needs to protect their skin, no matter what colour it is. Even on a cool day or when there are clouds in the sky, the sun can damage skin.

Click on the tabs below for more information about sun care.

Published by Bupa's Health Information Team, December 2010



About skin damage caused by sunlight

Some sun exposure within safe levels can be beneficial because our skin uses it to produce vitamin D, which can reduce your risk of developing a number of cancers and is also important for bone health. However, too much sun is harmful and can damage your skin, putting you at serious risk of skin cancer. It’s important that you get a balance between reducing your risk of skin damage from burning and enjoying the benefits of the sun.

The sun gives out ultraviolet (UV) radiation that is made up of three types of rays: UVA, UVB and UVC. UVC rays from the sun can't get through the ozone layer but UVA and UVB rays can. UVA can cause wrinkles, and UVB can cause sunburn and skin cancer.

Short-term skin damage

Sun tan

A tan is actually a sign that your skin has been damaged and is trying to protect itself. UV radiation stimulates your skin to produce more pigment (colour), which protects against damage. Your tan will fade, but the damage to your skin remains.

Short-term overexposure to the sun can burn your skin, usually making it red, hot and painful. People often think that sunburn is only a problem when sunbathing but it can also happen when you are out and about in the sunshine, such as playing in the park or gardening.

You can soothe sunburnt skin with general lotions such as aqueous cream, aloe vera lotion or other after sun lotions. If your sunburn is severe, you may need medical treatment.
Heat exhaustion and heat stroke

Heat exhaustion is when your body becomes overheated after too much sun or by getting sunburn. You may have the following symptoms:

  • a headache
  • feeling or being sick
  • feeling faint or dizzy
  • heavy sweating
  • hot skin
  • high temperature (between 37 and 39˚C)
If you think you have heat exhaustion, get to a cool place as soon as possible and drink plenty of water. If the symptoms don’t get better, or get worse, you should seek medical advice.

Heat exhaustion can lead to heat stroke, which can be fatal if it’s not treated.

Long-term skin damage

Ageing and infection

Ageing of your skin is a result of the UVA rays penetrating it, causing wrinkles and sagging. UV rays can also cause damage to the eyes. Too much sun exposure may even damage your immune system, increasing your risk of becoming ill.
Skin cancer

The exact causes of skin cancer aren’t fully understood at present, however your risk of skin cancer increases if you have exposed your skin to UV rays by spending a lot of time in the sun. You may also be more likely to get skin cancer if you have fair skin.

There are two types of skin cancer – melanoma and non-melanoma. Melanoma skin cancer is the most serious form, but it can be treated if found early. Getting badly burned can increase your risk of melanoma, especially as a child.

There are different types of non-melanoma skin cancer — basal cell carcinoma (BCC) and squamous cell carcinoma (SCC). Your risk of BCC is increased if you had repeated sunburn, especially as a child. You may be more likely to get SCC if you are exposed to sun throughout your life, for example if you work outdoors.

Preventing sun damage

Preventing sun damage

To protect your skin, stay out of the sun between 11am and 3pm, when the sun's UV rays are strongest. Look for shady areas under trees, and use umbrellas or canopies.

Watch the UV index

The UV index describes the strength of the sun's UV radiation. It's usually shown as a number in a triangle on a weather map. The numbers range from one to 11+ and the higher the number, the stronger the UV radiation. Depending on your skin type, you might need protection when the UV index is anything over three.

In many countries, the UV index is reported alongside the weather forecast in newspapers, on TV and on the radio.

Cover up

You can protect your skin by wearing long-sleeved tops and trousers. Choose materials that have a close weave as these block out the most UV rays. Wet clothing stretches and lets more UV radiation through to your skin. You can now buy sun protection factor (SPF) clothing and sun suits, which help to protect your skin from UV radiation.

Wearing a wide-brimmed hat can reduce the amount of UV radiation reaching your face.

Sunglasses help to protect your eyes and eyelids. Wraparound sunglasses will also protect the skin around your eyes. You should choose a pair of sunglasses that has the following labels:

  • 100 percent UV protection
  • UV 400 — this means it protects from both UVA and UVB rays
If you're buying a pair of sunglasses in Europe, check that they also carry the European Standard CE mark and the British Standard (BE EN 1836:1997). If you’re buying sunglasses in Australia or New Zealand, it’s recommended that they carry the Australia/New Zealand Standard (AS/NZS1067: 2003). In America the Standard is ANSI Z80.3-2001.

Wear sunscreen

Always use broad spectrum sunscreen. This means that it protects your skin against UVA and UVB rays. Make sure it has a SPF of 15 or higher. The SPF tells you how good the sunscreen is at filtering out the UVB rays. UVA protection is measured with a star rating. Sunscreens can have between zero and five star UVA protection — opt for one with at least four stars.

Sunscreen can't give you complete protection since some UV rays will always get through, but you will get more than 90 percent protection from UVB rays with SPF 15.

Use sunscreens generously. You should use about two teaspoons of sunscreen for you head, neck and arms, and two tablespoons for your whole body when wearing a swimsuit. Re-apply sunscreen every two hours or more often if you go swimming, or sweat a lot. Water reflects the sun's rays so you need to apply sunscreen before swimming.

Cloud doesn't stop the sun's UV rays getting through so you should protect yourself even if it's cloudy. Haze (from thin clouds or mist) can even increase your UV radiation exposure because the rays are scattered.

Check moles

You should check your moles regularly for changes that may indicate skin cancer. Most changes are harmless, but you should see a doctor if you notice:

  • growth of an existing mole — especially over 7mm (a quarter of an inch) in diameter
  • a mole with an uneven or ragged edge
  • a mole of varying shades of colour
  • a mole with an inflamed or red edge
  • a mole that bleeds, oozes or crusts
  • a mole that feels different, painful or itches

Don't use sunbeds

Sunbeds mimic the effect of the sun and give out artificial UVA and UVB radiation. Exposure to artificial UV radiation can also damage your skin. Sunbeds have been linked to premature wrinkles and an increased risk of skin cancer. They can also damage your eyes.

An artificial tan from a sunbed doesn't protect your skin against sunburn on holiday; it's similar to using a sunscreen with SPF 2 to 3.

There are no regulations relating to the use of sunbeds, but the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that you should never use a sunbed if you:

  • are under 18
  • have sunburn, burn easily or had frequent sunburn as a child
  • have a lot of moles
  • tend to freckle
  • have pre-cancerous or cancerous skin lesions
  • are wearing cosmetic products (these may make you more sensitive to UV radiation)
  • are taking medication (you should seek medical advice to check whether your medication will make you particularly sensitive to UV radiation)
  • have someone in the family who has had skin cancer

Winter sun

You can't feel UV rays. The warmth you feel on your skin is actually caused by the sun's infrared radiation. So just because you can't feel the hot rays of the sun, it doesn't mean you won't get sunburnt.

The amount of UV radiation is generally lower during the winter but snow reflects most of the sun's rays, so you can still get sunburnt. If you're high up in the mountains, there is less atmosphere to block out the UV rays, so make sure you use sunscreen.

Protecting children

Protecting children

Protecting children from the sun

Young skin is sensitive and very easily damaged by the sun. Getting sunburnt as a child is known to increase the risk of developing a dangerous form of skin cancer as an adult.

Keep your baby in complete shade. Pop-up shelters are a good way to protect your child from the sun on the beach or in the garden. Canopies and parasols for prams and buggies protect your child when you're out and about.

Dress your child in loose-fitting clothes that cover up their arms and legs. A hat with a brim at the front and a cloth flap that covers the neck provides good sun protection. Sunglasses will help to protect your child's eyes.

Use water-resistant sunscreen with SPF 15 or higher — the higher the better — on all exposed areas of your child's skin and apply generously every couple of hours. If you take your child swimming, re-apply the sunscreen after towel drying. UV protection swimwear is also a good way of protecting your child.

Fake tans

Fake tans

Fake tanning lotions are a popular alternative to sunbathing and sun beds. The tanning lotion reacts with your skin and produces a brown pigment. Fake tan needs to be re-applied regularly if you want to maintain your tan, because your outer skin cells are shed naturally as your skin grows.

Some fake tanning lotions contain sun protection but the SPF is usually very low, so you should also wear sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or higher when you're out in the sun.

Although fake tanning lotions aren't known to be dangerous, they can sometimes trigger an allergic reaction. Always test the lotion on a small area of your skin first to see if you have a reaction.



This information was published by Bupa's Health Information Team and is based on reputable sources of medical evidence. It has been peer reviewed by Bupa doctors. This content was compiled by Bupa based on clinical information and practice current as at the stated date of publication. Content is likely to reflect clinical practice in a particular geographical region (as indicated by the sources cited) – accordingly, it may not reflect clinical practice in the reader’s country of habitation. This content is intended for general information only and does not replace the need for personal advice from a qualified health professional. Photos and videos are only for illustrative purposes and do not reflect every presentation of a condition.

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