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Sun Awareness Week: Stay safe and know the signs of skin cancer

After what has seemed like a long Winter and an unusually cold Spring, the weather is beginning to warm up.

With it comes the prospect of sunshine and the chance to spend more time outside.

As welcome as this is, it’s essential to be aware of increased exposure to the sun’s rays and the risk of skin cancer.

Skin cancer is caused by prolonged exposure to the sun’s UV rays. It is one of the most common forms of cancer in the UK, with numbers rising significantly every year.

Today is the start of Sun Awareness Week, an annual event held by the British Association of Dermatologists. The aim is to remind people to stay safe in the sun and to spot signs of damage caused by UV rays.

Read on to learn more, or jump to different sections with the buttons.


A few myths about skin cancer and skincare are worth clearing up.

Darker skin doesn’t need sun cream. False.

Darker skin can be more protected against UV rays due to higher melanin levels. Still, it doesn’t mean the skin can’t be damaged by overexposure. Everyone should use sunscreen regardless of their skin colour.

You can’t get sunburned on a cloudy day. False.

Cloud can make us think we’re safe from the sun, but 80% of UV rays get through cloud cover and can still damage our skin.

You can’t get sunburned in Winter or on a cold day. False.

UV rays are present all year round, even when it is cloudy or overcast. If you are going to be outside for long periods, you should use sunscreen no matter the temperature or time of year.

You can’t get sunburned through glass. False.

Most normal glass in our windows at home will block out some UVB rays — the type that causes sunburn. However, UVA rays, which penetrate deeper, adding to skin ageing and causing some types of cancer, can get through normal glass. So, if you are in direct sunlight, sitting by a window or in a car, you can still get burned.

Sunbeds are safer than exposure to the sun. False.

There is no such thing as safe UV tanning. Sunbeds give off UV rays, just like the sun. But they are much more intense, and exposure to high-powered UVA and UVB rays can cause significant damage to your skin, eyes and immune system.


Skin cancer is caused by continued exposure to the sun.

Knowing you can get skin cancer even if you haven’t been sunburnt is essential. Sunburn is a clear sign of damage to your skin and increases your risk of skin cancer. Still, it’s also about the cumulative effect of the sun on your skin.

The best ways to prevent sun damage to your skin are:

  • Wearing protective clothing
  • Use sunscreen and regularly reapply it throughout the day, especially if you have been swimming.
  • Spending only a short time outside during the hottest part of the day, usually between 10 am and 4 pm.
  • Wearing sunglasses
  • Regularly getting some shade or going inside

If you get sunburnt, you can do things at home to help.

Take a cool shower or use a damp cloth or towel to cool your skin, then put on some after-sun cream or spray. Make sure to drink plenty of water and take paracetamol or ibuprofen if needed. Keep sunburnt skin covered up until it heals.

If it doesn’t improve at home, you can also ask a pharmacist for advice about the best treatments.

Please only contact the NHS if your skin is blistered or swollen, you have a high temperature, dizziness, headaches or muscle cramps. You should get help from a Doctor if a baby or young child has been sunburnt.

Types, Symptoms, Tests and Treatment

As we mentioned, skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the UK.

There are two main types – the more common non-melanoma skin cancer and the less common but more severe melanoma skin cancer.

Non-melanoma skin cancer develops in the mid and top levels of the skin.

Statistics from Cancer Research UK report 156,000 new cases every year and around 900 deaths.

Cases have increased hugely since the 1990s and could rise to over 260,000 by 2038.

Symptoms of non-melanoma skin cancer include a red, irritated rash, bump, sore, or ulcer that won’t heal.

Guidance from the NHS says you should see a GP if:

  • you have a growth on your skin that’s getting bigger or has changed colour or texture
  • you have a growth or area of skin that hurts, itches, bleeds, crusts or scabs for more than 4 weeks

Thankfully, non-melanoma skin cancer is slow to develop and less likely to spread to other parts of your body. It is also very treatable if caught early.

Your GP may refer you to a hospital specialist. The most common surgical treatment involves cutting out or freezing the affected skin.

Melanoma skin cancer is the other, more aggressive type of skin cancer.

There are around 17,000 cases in the UK annually, leading to over 2,000 deaths. Again, cases of melanoma skin cancer have gone up a lot – more than doubling since the 1990s.

Melanoma is a skin cancer that develops in the deepest layer of the skin. It grows quickly and can spread to other areas.

The main symptoms of melanoma skin cancer are new moles appearing, or changes to the size and shape of existing moles.

The British Association of Dermatologists have produced an easy guide for checking moles

You should see a GP if you have:

  • a mole has changed size, shape or colour
  • a mole has become painful or itchy
  • a mole has become inflamed, bleeding or crusty
  • a new or unusual mark has not gone away after a few weeks
  • a dark area under a nail that an injury has not caused

A GP may refer you to a hospital specialist for further tests, including an excision biopsy, in which the mole and some surrounding skin are cut out and analysed.

Melanoma skin cancer can often be treated. The type of treatment will depend on your general health, where the cancer is and if it has spread.

Surgery to remove the affected cells is most common, but radiotherapy and chemotherapy might also be options.


The risk of developing skin cancer increases with age, with a third of cases being diagnosed in people over 75. This is mainly due to the cumulative damage of the sun over time,

That said, anyone can get skin cancer, and if you are pale-skinned, have lots of moles or are prone to sunburn, your risk can be higher. A family history of skin cancer can also increase your risk.

So, while genetics can play a role, the most significant cause of skin cancer is overexposure to UV rays.

Melanoma skin cancer, in particular, is linked to strong, shorter bursts of overexposure, such as getting sunburned or tanning, either through sunbathing or using sunbeds.

Remember, no tanning is entirely safe, and exposure to UV light can damage your skin and increase your risk of skin cancer.

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