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This article is from the WebMD News Archive

'Escape to the sun' skin cancer concerns

WebMD UK Health News
Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks

21st January 2015 – The NHS regulator for England is trying to help people understand the benefits and risks of sun exposure so people can strike the right balance, whilst not putting themselves at increased risk of skin cancer.

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) says more needs to be done to make people realise that having a tan can damage the skin.

Skin cancer diagnoses have been rising since the 1970s, with the popularity of cheaper holidays to sunny places abroad being blamed for some of the increase.

New sun advice

NICE is working on new guidance on safe sun exposure, which is important for the body to make vitamin D during the summer months.

Many people are at risk of low vitamin D levels in the UK, including those who have to stay indoors, people who cover up for cultural reasons and people with darker skins.

When it is issued, the new advice will try to get a balance between covering up and using sunscreen for sun safety, against the need for some exposure, but to stop before skin burns.

No guidance so far has been able to say how long people should spend in the sun without covering up to get their vitamin D topped up without increasing their melanoma skin cancer risk. The optimum time is influenced by people's skin type, skin colour, medical conditions and the strength of the sun.

Tailored advice

Health professionals will be asked to explain that exposing relatively small areas of skin, such as forearms and hands to the sun for short periods can provide vitamin D.

The safety message will also stress that no sunscreen can offer 100% protection against damage from sunlight.

In a statement, Professor Gillian Leng, deputy chief executive and director of health and social care at NICE says: "Although exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet rays for too long can increase your risk of developing skin cancer, being out in the sun can be good for you too – it provides both a good source of vitamin D and the opportunity to be physically active. A balance needs to be struck. This depends on a number of factors including geographical location, time of day and year, weather conditions, natural skin colour and time spent in the sun."

NICE says the best way will be for people to have tailored advice. Professor Leng says: "Those likely to be at higher risk of skin cancer include people with lighter skin who may burn more easily, as well as babies and people who work outside. People at higher risk of having low levels of vitamin D, include those with darker skin, pregnant women, children, older adults, and people who don’t get much sun exposure."


The Cancer Research UK SunSmart campaign currently advises:

  • Spend time in the shade between 11am and 3pm
  • Cover up with a t-shirt, wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses
  • Use sunscreen of at least SPF 15, applying it generously and often

Any changes to moles or unusual skin growths should be checked promptly by your GP.

Reviewed on January 21, 2015

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