How to stay safe in the sun

a profile photo of Dr Sarah White
Associate Clinical Director, Bupa Health Clinics
24 June 2021
Next review due June 2024

The British weather is always changing. So you might be tempted to rush out into the sunshine when it arrives. But sun safety is very important. Whether you’re spending the day outside or just popping to the shops at lunchtime, you need to be careful. Here I’ll talk you through how to keep yourself safe in the sunshine and what to do if you get sunburnt.

This year, many of us will be holidaying at home. But this doesn’t mean you can forget about sun safety. The UK sunshine can be just as strong as it is abroad. And, you don’t need to be lying on a beach for hours for it to do damage. Having a couple of drinks in a pub garden or eating lunch outside can be enough to put you at risk.

Isn’t spending time in the sun good for me?

You might find that longer, brighter days boost your mood. And, it’s true that you do need some sunshine, because it helps your body to produce vitamin D. But you don’t need to sunbathe to make vitamin D.

Spending too much time in the sun can cause serious health problems.

How can getting too much sun affect your health?

The most serious harm the sun can do is to increase your risk of getting skin cancer. This happens because the sun gives out ultraviolet (UV) radiation. This radiation is made up of UVA, UVB and UVC rays. UVB rays can damage the DNA in your skin cells and this damage can cause the cells to grow out of control. This can lead to skin cancer.

Most cases of melanoma (the most serious type of skin cancer) are caused by being exposed to too much UV radiation. And, skin cancer can develop years after the damage first happens.

As well as the risk of cancer, spending time in the sun can also cause other problems including heat exhaustion, heatstroke, and dehydration. The good news is that there are things you can do to stay safe.

Tips for staying safe in the sun

1. Use sunscreen

Prevent your skin from burning by using a good quality sunscreen. Try to make sure you have some in the cupboard before the sunny weather arrives. Check the packaging to make sure your sunscreen:

  • displays the letters ‘UVA’ in a circle on the packaging
  • has a star rating of 4 or 5 — this is the level of protection from UVA rays
  • is at least SPF (Sun Protection Factor) 30 or more — this is the level of protection from UVB rays
  • is water-resistant if you’re going in water or will be sweating a lot
  • is still in-date

Apply plenty of sunscreen 30 minutes before you go outside, even if you’re not planning to be out for very long. You should also reapply your sunscreen at least every two hours, even if the sky clouds over. If you buy water-resistant sunscreen you still need to reapply it once you’re out of the water.

When you’re applying sunscreen, make sure you don’t miss sensitive areas such as your ears, nose and lips. You should also make sure you apply it carefully to areas that are usually covered up, such as the back of your neck, legs and shoulders.

2. Wear protective clothing

Protect your skin from UV rays by wearing loose clothes that cover your skin, such as long-sleeved tops and trousers made from breathable fabrics. Try holding clothes up to the light to see how much sunlight gets through. Those with a tighter weave should offer more protection. Some clothing now includes details of the UPF (UV Protection Factor) on the label too.

Don’t forget a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses. Choose sunglasses that fit well, display a CE mark on the label and offer 100% UV protection.

3. Check the UV index

The UV index tells you how strong the UV rays are in your area at a particular time. The higher the UV index, the easier it is for your skin to burn and become damaged. If the UV index in your area is above three, you’ll need to take extra steps to protect your skin. This is particularly important if you burn easily, or if you’re going outside for the first time after the winter months.

You can find out the UV index for where you are on the Met Office website.

4. Seek out shade

The sun’s rays are strongest around midday when the sun is highest in the sky. This is usually between 11am and 3pm in the UK. Avoid time in the sun at these times and seek shade if you can. If you do head outdoors during this time, it’s a good idea to bring an umbrella or other shade with you.

Sunlight also reflects off surfaces such as water, sand and snow. This means that even when you’re in shaded areas, the sun can still damage your skin and eyes if they‘re not protected.

5. Drink plenty of water

In hotter weather, your body sweats more to try and cool you down. So, it’s important to drink plenty of fluids to ensure you stay hydrated. Aim to drink at least 6-8 glasses of water a day, and more if you’re feeling thirsty. As well as water – tea, coffee, low-fat milk and up to 150ml of fruit juice or smoothie all count towards your daily fluid intake.

Try to steer clear of alcoholic drinks, as alcohol is a diuretic. This means it makes you need to pee more often and can make you more dehydrated.

Click on the images below to download the Five ways to stay safe in the sun PDF (PDF, 0.43 MB) and How to treat sunburn PDF (PDF, 0.47 MB).

click more image for the sun safety infographic   click here image to find more about sunburn

What should I do if I am sunburnt?

If you’ve accidentally burnt your skin, you might find that it’s irritated, sore, and might even blister. If you have pale skin, you might find that it looks red too.

It’s important to remember that these steps can’t repair any long-term damage caused by sunburn, but they can help to ease your symptoms.

  • Come out of the sun and stay inside where it’s cool.
  • Cover your skin with light clothing so it’s not exposed.
  • Stay hydrated by drinking sips of cold water. You’ll need to drink more when you have sunburn because some of the fluid in your body is redirected to your skin.
  • Have a cool shower or bath.
  • Consider taking over-the-counter painkillers if you need to.
  • If you don’t have blisters, you can try applying a soothing lotion like after-sun cream or aloe vera.

If your skin has developed blisters, this means that your sunburn is severe, and you’ll need to see a doctor.

If you have got sunburn, it’s really important you do everything you can not to let it happen again.

If you’re showing symptoms of cancer, our direct access service aims to help you see someone as quickly as possible. If you’re covered by your health insurance, and depending on your symptoms, you may be able to skip a GP referral and go straight to seeing a consultant. Learn more today.

a profile photo of Dr Sarah White
Dr Sarah White
Associate Clinical Director, Bupa Health Clinics

    • How does the sun and UV cause cancer? Cancer Research UK., reviewed 4 June 2021
    • Causes and risk factors of skin cancer. Macmillan Cancer Support., reviewed 29 September 2017
    • Heat stroke in adults. BMJ Best Practice., updated 7 Jan 2021
    • Sunscreens. Royal Pharmaceutical Society., accessed 17 June 2021
    • Sunscreen Fact Sheet. British Association of Dermatologists., published 2013
    • Sunscreen. British National Formulary., accessed 17 June 2021
    • Sun safety. Cancer Research UK., reviewed 1 June 2021
    • UV index forecast. Met Office., accessed 17 June 2021
    • Radiation: The ultraviolet (UV) index. World Health Organisation., published 16 March 2017
    • Radiation: Ultraviolet (UV) radiation. World Health Organisation., published 9 March 2016
    • Fluid (water and drinks): Food Fact Sheet. British Dietetic Association., published October 2020
    • Sunburn. BMJ Best Practice., updated 25 May 2021
    • Nutrition support: Burn injury. Oxford Handbook of Nutrition and Dietetics (3 edn). Oxford Medicine Online., published April 2020

Did you find our advice helpful?

We’d love to hear what you think. Our short survey takes just a few minutes to complete and helps us to keep improving our healthy lifestyle articles.