Sun exposure: know the risks

07 July 2015

A study by the British Association of Dermatologists surveyed over 1000 people in regard to their sun protection habits and knowledge.

Sun exposure

Johnathon Major British Association of Dermatologists

Skin cancer is now the most common form of cancer in the UK. At least 250,000 people in the UK are diagnosed with skin cancer each year, of these over 13,000 are melanoma - the most deadly form of skin cancer. On average, seven people in Britain die each day from the disease.

Since the 1970s, skin cancer rates in the British public have increased at alarming rates. A number of reasons are to blame for this, such as cheaper holidays abroad, the continuing desire to have a tan and poor sun protection habits. We also often hear from people who do not consider skin cancer to be a serious disease, and therefore they don’t take the appropriate measures to protect themselves. In addition, many think that the sun in the UK is not strong enough to give rise to skin cancer.

Sadly, these misconceptions are leading people to expose their skin to the sun without protection. This has led the UK to a skin cancer crisis.

Caused by ultraviolet radiation from the sun, skin cancer can develop from either short intense exposures or damage that has accumulated over the years. While skin cancers can aff ect any age group or skin type, most commonly they appear in the over 65 demographic and in fairer toned skins. Having said this, skin cancer is disproportionately represented in the 16-24 age group. Likewise, while skin cancers can appear anywhere on the body, the most common place for them to occur in men is on the back and on the legs in women.

Sun exposure


A recent study conducted by the British Association of Dermatologists, surveyed over 1000 people in regard to their sun protection habits and knowledge. 77 per cent of people acknowledged that they would not recognise the signs of skin cancer, and a further 72 per cent admitted to having been sun burnt in the past 12 months (Reference, year).

If we are to see a decrease in the number of individuals developing skin cancer within the UK, then the British public must start taking sun protection seriously. On sunny days, it is recommend thated a sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 30 is applied half an hour before going outside, again shortly after going in the sun, and then reapplied liberally every two hours. It also important to reapply after any activities which might accidently remove the sunscreen, such as swimming or towel drying. You must ensure that your chosen sunscreen provides a good level of ultraviolet A (UVA) protection, which will block out the sun’s harmful UVA rays associated with ageing. European Union (EU) regulations state that the UVA protection offered by each sunscreen should be a third of its SPF. Products that meet this criteria are stamped with the letters UVA surrounded by a circle. Sunscreens that offer SPF 30 and possess a UVA rating of four or five stars are generally considered high quality sun protection

While sunscreen is an important part of sun protection, it is not the first line of defence. Protective clothing, such as wide brimmed hats and long sleeved t-shirts, are excellent methods of blocking out the sun’s harmful UV rays. Seeking shade during the hottest parts of the day is also highly advisable; this is usually between the hours of 11am and 3pm in the UK.

Case Study

Lauren McDonald, 30, is a doctor from Brighton Until last year I was a fit and healthy 29-yearold. Despite my medical training, I still considered skin cancer a relatively rare disease that happened after decades of excessive tanning, and certainly not something that I would find myself up against while still so young. Raised in North Devon, I have always had plenty of outdoor hobbies and lived an active lifestyle, often involving spending time in the sunshine. However, during my 20s I spent less time in the sun, and became much more vigilant, making sure to apply high factor sunscreen regularly if spending time outdoors. However, looking back at my teenage years there were a few occasions where I can remember accidentally burning.

It was a new strange little pink spot on my leg - which looked a bit like a mole - and itched, that caused me to go straight to my GP in June 2013. I was told that the spot did not look like anything to worry about (and that it was likely a venous haemangioma which would fade). I was told to monitor it for any changes, and return if it changed in any way. I monitored the spot regularly by examining my skin and using my camera phone to keep a visual record. Six months later, it suddenly changed when I was shaving my legs and caught it with the blade. It bled profusely and then scabbed over. I went straight back to the GP and was immediately referred to a dermatology specialist for a biopsy. A week later, I was called in for the results – and the bomb was dropped. Malignant melanoma, of unknown depth. Everything from then until now seems to have blurred into a series of appointments, scans, and surgeries.

Following my diagnosis, I was rushed straight into hospital for an operation in which the surgeon removed an extensive amount of tissue surrounding the melanoma. For the sake of a tiny spot, I was left with a 10cm scar down my thigh. But that wasn’t the end of it. I underwent blood tests, full-body scans, and a brain scan since it was unclear whether the melanoma had already metastasized around my body. Although the first round of tests were negative, follow up scans a few months later detected melanoma in a lymph node in my groin. I underwent a second surgery in September 2014. This was a groin dissection, a four-hour operation in which a cluster of lymph nodes are removed and then analysed for melanoma. Of the 13 lymph nodes removed during that surgery, one showed the presence of melanoma. With a new diagnosis of stage 3b melanoma and a scarily poor survival statistic at five years, I began to consider myself officially a cancer patient.

Although my latest full body computed tomography (CT) scan in May 2015 was stable, I am currently exploring all further treatment options, including the option of joining a clinical drug trial. Over the past few years there have, fortunately, been some exciting developments in the field of immunotherapy drugs used to treat advanced melanoma, and potentially decrease the chance of melanoma recurring.

During the past 12 months I have learned that, unfortunately, my story is not an unusual one. Skin cancer is rapidly becoming one of the most common cancers among young people, and if not caught early it can be deadly.

My melanoma diagnosis has completely turned my life upside down. As a result of having the lymph nodes in my right groin removed, I now have to wear a support stocking on that leg most days. If I don’t I am at risk of getting lymphoedema in that leg. A chunky thick leg stocking is not the summer accessory that most 30 year olds would choose, plus it affects what I can and can’t wear. Luckily I’m not too affected by my scars, but again, as a young woman, I’d obviously prefer if my leg hadn’t been turned into a patchwork quilt. However, if a few scars are all I have to pay for having my life saved, I’m OK with that. Beyond the physical issues that I have with my leg, it’s the psychological impact of melanoma that I struggle with most. Dealing with the worry that the cancer will return can be exhausting, and it’s only in the last few months that I’ve felt more accepting of my uncertain future.

As a result of my experience, I am now working with the charity Trekstock on their THRIVE initiative, helping young people thrive in the face of cancer.


Picture credit: iStock


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