Protecting your skin from the sun

04 Sep 2018

With many people off on late summer holidays, Dr Richard Groves, consultant dermatologist, explains why it is important to protect your skin, what SPF actually means and paying attention to your moles. 

Man with sunburn

Why is it important to protect your skin from the sun?

Skin cancer is common - around 15,400 new cases of melanoma each year and 136,000 new non-melanoma cancers in the UK alone.

Whilst there are many risk factors: genetics, cancer-causing viruses, environmental carcinogens, the only one that an individual can do anything about is ultraviolet irradiation, particularly the high energy UV-B rays in sunlight.  

Although most skin cancers are easily treated if they are caught early, when they spread from the skin to other organs they can be very dangerous. So prevention is better than cure!

How do you protect your skin from the sun?

There are various things that you should do, and all are common sense. We should all use a high factor sunblock, and I would suggest at least factor 30 for most people. Put it on before you go out into the sun in the morning and re-apply after swimming, towelling and on several occasions throughout the day, even for waterproof and long lasting blocks.  

Avoiding the strong mid-day sun is important, and wearing a hat or light clothing will also help.  Sit in the shade, enjoy a good book and don’t roast on the beach.

Are there any other parts of the body we should protect against UV damage?

We should be protecting all exposed skin. Taking care to use sunglasses is also important.  

What does the SPF number on suncreams actually mean?

The SPF number indicates the fraction of UV-B radiation that gets through to the skin if a block is adequately applied.

A factor 30 blocks out 29/30ths of the UV-B and lets through 1/30th. A factor 20 would block out 19/20ths and let through 1/20th and so on. 

My view is that factor 30 represents a 'sweet spot': it will give good protection and there are lots of different products on the market at that level. Everyone should be able to find one that they like the feel and smell of, and is available at the right price, and so will use it.  

What should people do if they get sunburn?

If you do get sunburn, stay out of the sun, drink plenty of water and apply a bland moisturiser to the burned skin. If you feel unwell or develop fluid filled blisters then medical advice should be sought.  

What is the "ABCDE" technique?

This is a way of looking at moles in a systematic fashion. Moles on this list should be treated with caution: 

  • Asymmetric
  • Have an irregular Border
  • Are irregularly Coloured
  • Different type of mole
  • Evolve (change in some way) 

The diameter of the mole used to be thought to be significant if more than 6mm but this is not really very useful as many normal moles can be that size. So it is better to look out for moles that are Different from your other moles.  

People talk about the 'ugly duckling', something on your skin that looks different from everything else, as it is unusual to develop several new skin cancers at one time. 

What can people do if they are worried about any moles?

The key thing is to seek proper medical advice from your GP or dermatologist. It is always better to be safe than sorry!


Any views expressed in this article are those of the featured specialist(s) and should not be considered to be the views or official policy of The London Clinic.