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So far this summer we can’t complain about our ‘traditional British summer’ which is usually a colloquialism for ‘lots of cloud and rain, especially on bank holidays!’

None of that this year though as temperatures have already broken records and large parts of the country have seen over 30 degrees Celsius for a few days in a row as the heatwave hit.

But as tempting as it is to dash out to do a spot of sun-bathing to catch up on the last two years of lost summer holidays, make sure you think about some basic sun safety first, and act to guard against the harmful rays that we don’t see, but can be devastating if ignored.

The benefits of the sun

There is no doubt that most of us feel better when the sun is out. Sunlight is essential for the planet and for our human health and well-being. There are many health benefits of sunlight on our skin including:

  • The production of vitamin D which is not available through diet alone and the sun is the body’s main source of producing vitamin D
  • Support for bone health
  • Lowering blood pressure
  • Preventing disease
  • Reducing the risk of seasonal affected disorder (SAD) which is a form of depression
  • Promoting good mental health through the release of serotonin

So the sun’s rays are beneficial – BUT only when precautions have been observed as there are many harmful effects that the sun can have on us humans.

Harmful effects of the sun

Too much sun can have negative effects on the body and can even be deadly. Unprotected exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays can cause damage to the eyes, the skin and the body’s immune system. Over time, it can cause damage to skin cells that can lead to painful sunburn or even skin cancer. Other harmful effects can be dehydration, sun/heat stroke and premature aging.

The sun’s rays are made of ultraviolet radiation, with short wavelengths categorised as:

  • UVA - wavelengths 320 to 400 nm (nanometres)
  • UVB - wavelengths are 280 to 320 nm
  • UVC - wavelengths are 100 to 280 nm

The earth’s atmosphere absorbs UVC rays so only UVA and UVB rays get to earth. UVB rays are more damaging than UVA rays and are a higher risk of causing skin cancer. But UVA rays are still damaging causing aging, wrinkling and a loss of skin elasticity, and the combination of the two can be very detrimental.

When these rays hit the skin, they penetrate the upper layers of the epidermis and trigger cells called melanocytes to produce melanin. Melanin is the brown pigment that causes the skin to tan and is the body’s way of protecting skin from burning. If the UV damage exceeds the response that the body can offer, then a sunburn develops. If this bombardment continues, then skin cancer can develop.

Skin cancer is the most common form or cancer in the UK with rates continuing to rise. There are at least 100,000 new cases diagnosed every year and sadly, over 2,500 people die each year, many of which are preventable deaths.

Staying safe in the sun

Obviously, we need to keep the children we look after safe in the sun, and there is a lot of information out there to help us do this. If children suffer severe sunburn as children, then they have a greater risk of developing skin cancer in later life. But it is also important that practitioners and parents also look after themselves in the sun too.

Shade, clothing and hats!

Keeping your skin out of the sun is the first line of defence against sun damage, so seeking shady areas is a good start. Avoid the sun when the rays are strongest which tends to be between 11am and 3pm when the sun is more directly overhead. If you can’t find shade, then covering up is the next best thing. Cover as much of your skin as possible, especially the shoulders which burn easily. Wide-brimmed hats cover the head and offer protection for the face, ears and neck. Obviously, we also want to be able to enjoy the sun and get the benefits on our skin too at times, and in very hot weather, most of us shed clothing, so shade becomes more important. If you are swimming, consider wearing a T-shirt and wetsuits are good for adults and children alike as they cover most of the body.

Sunscreen

Sunscreen is essential in the sun as some skin types can burn in as little as 10 minutes. Use at least a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or higher and children should use a SPF50. The higher the star rating, the more protection the sunscreen offers and remember to use a lip protection sunscreen as well. Sunscreen should be applied liberally and on all exposed areas and it should be reapplied often, at least every 2 hours and especially after swimming. Waterproof sunscreens will offer more protection whilst swimming and also tend to stay on better in the heat as people sweat. Remember that sunscreens have an expiry date, so it’s best to buy new sunscreen each year.

Sunglasses

Eyes should be protected from the glare of the sun too and no one should ever look directly at the sun. There are a lot of different sunglasses on the market but ‘all sunglasses are not created equal’ so shop around for ones that filter our UV radiation or have an EU quality kitemark. Some sunglasses are styled to wrap-around the side of the head offering even more protection.

Stay hydrated

In hot weather it is important to stay hydrated. People tend to sweat more so need to replenish lost water. It’s recommended to drink at least 2 litres of fluids each day and more in hot weather.

Seek advice and treatment

If you are concerned about a mole or other marks that appear on the skin, then it is best to seek advice from your doctor early. Most skin cancers are curable if they are found and treated in good time. After all, it’s better to be safe than sorry. There are a number of apps that track skin and moles which are commercially available too.

Sunstroke and heat exhaustion

f someone is suffering from sunstroke or heat exhaustion, try to move them to a cool place and cool them down. If they become short of breath or unconscious, call 999. See https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/heat-exhaustion-heatstroke/ for more information.

See the NHS website on sun safety at: https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/seasonal-health/sunscreen-and-sun-safety/ and how to cope with heatwaves here.

For more specific advice on keeping babies and children safe in the sun, see:

https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/baby/first-aid-and-safety/safety/safety-in-the-sun/ 

https://www.nct.org.uk/baby-toddler/getting-out-about-your-baby/summer-your-baby/sun-safety-for-kids 

References

https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/benefits-of-sunlight 

https://www.netdoctor.co.uk/conditions/skin-and-hair/a3629/sunbathing/ 

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