British Skin Foundation - Sun Awareness & Skin Cancer

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Fair skin and the sun

Postby Guest Posts on Mon May 08, 2017 10:14 am

I have red hair and fair skin and burn in the sun very quickly. I do try to use sun spray (usually 50+) but there are times where I forget or it's sunnier than I've realised and by the time I do it's too late. The amount of freckles I have also increases when I've been exposed to the sun. I do try to wear a hat and avoid the sun if possible - it gives me a headache as much as anything - and would never use a sun bed, but inevitably there have been plenty of times when I've been burnt. Does this increase any risk of skin cancer?

However, I have also read that avoiding the sun/using sun spray actually increases the risk of cancer by blocking the body's ability to produce vitamin d3. I was wondering if there any truth in this as I don't know enough about either view to know which is correct.

Many thanks for your help. Jane
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Re: Fair skin and the sun

Postby Dr Anjali Mahto on Tue May 09, 2017 8:04 pm

Dear Jane,

Many thanks for taking the time to post a question.

Your skin type is at risk for burning and developing problems due to the sun over time so sunprotection is very important for you. You should aim to use SPF 30-50, which provides broad spectrum cover against both UVA and UVB rays. Ideally, this should be applied about 30 minutes before you go outdoors and regularly reapplied every 90 minutes or so to get the factor stated on the bottle. In addition to this, other measures should be taken (as it sounds like you are already) - these include a wide-brimmed hat, sunglasses, seeking shade, protective clothing and staying out of the sun during peak daylight hours. Multiple sunburns can increase your risk of skin cancer so caution must be taken. If you have any concerns about your skin it is worthwhile visiting your GP or a dermatologist.

The vitamin D saga has become increasingly confusing with many mixed messages. Your skin needs UVB from the sun to produce vitamin D. However, your skin only makes a finite amount of vitamin D following sun-exposure so there is no benefit for example, sitting outdoors for hours on end in an attempt to raise levels. General consensus is that "casual exposure" for a few minutes a day during the spring/summer months should be adequate - this is the time it takes for your skin to be exposed to the sun without turning red or burning. It will be different for different skin types and may only be a few minutes for you.

The second point to raise is that during the months of October to March in the UK we do not get enough UVB light due to our latitude to produce vitamin D. During these months it may be helpful to take a supplement if you are not getting enough vitamin D in your diet. Good sources of vitamin D include fatty fish (e.g. salmon, mackerel, tuna), egg yolks, cheese, and leafy green vegetables. Following a healthy, balanced diet to improve vitamin D stores is preferable to sun exposure which potentially leaves you at risk of developing problems such as skin cancer.

In answer to your question whether cancer risk is increased by sun avoidance, my concluding answer would be this. Adequately protecting against the sun to reduce skin cancer risk leaves you at risk of low vitamin D levels. Low vitamin D levels have been associated with a number of health problems (as have levels that are too high for that matter). Therefore, the best way to get your vitamin D is through your diet or supplementation where possible. Excessive sun exposure can leave you vulnerable to skin cancer so this is not the preferred method to enhance your stores.

I hope that all helps and answers your questions.

Best wishes,

Dr Anjali Mahto
Consultant Dermatologist and British Skin Foundation spokesperson
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