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The benefits of being outside couldn’t have been promoted more in the last year, from government health advisors informing us it’s safer to socialise outside to stop the spread of COVID-19, to mental health experts advising on the importance of going for regular walks.

There’s also the added suggestion that by being outside we can ensure we’re getting enough Vitamin D – which is needed to keep bones, teeth and muscles healthy. Here Dr Robert Sarkany, Consultant Dermatologist at The Lister Hospital, part of HCA Healthcare UK, discusses the impact of increased sunlight on your skin and how you can best protect yourself this summer.

What is vitamin D?

Vitamin D is the ‘sunshine Vitamin’ and it’s important that we have enough of this vitamin, as being deficient in it can lead to bone health problems such as rickets and osteoporosis. However, there are much safer ways of absorbing Vitamin D than spending time in the sun. Taking supplements and eating Vitamin D-rich foods can give you exactly the same absorption in a much safer way. 

You can determine whether your Vitamin D levels are sufficient by undergoing a blood test. If you choose to take a Vitamin D supplement, it’s recommended that you take between 400-1,000 units of vitamin D3 per day. Whilst you can’t get as much Vitamin D from foods, the foods that are rich in it include oily fish such as salmon, sardines, herring and mackerel, red meat, liver, egg yolks and fortified foods such as some fat spreads and breakfast cereals. 

How to be sun safe

So, whilst we’ve established that you don’t need to be outside to get a sufficient amount of Vitamin D, if you do choose to spend time outside in the sun, the advice is of course to be careful. Due to travel restrictions still being in place, it’s likely that more people will be planning to holiday in the UK this summer, which is concerning given the figures in a recent survey by Cancer Research UK. It reported that around 3.7 million adults said that they don’t do anything to protect their skin when the sun is strong in the UK, but would protect themselves more when abroad. It’s important not to underestimate the risk that the sun poses in the UK, even if it doesn’t feel as strong.

Top 3 tips for sun safety

1. Wear sunscreen when spending time outside in the spring and summer months, even when the sun isn’t visible
2. Remain in the shade, where possible, from 11.00am-3.00pm
3. Wear protective clothing such as a hat, sunglasses and long-sleeved clothing

Whilst it’s key that everyone sticks to the above tips, it’s even more important for those who have a higher risk of getting skin damage, such as if you have a family history of skin cancer, if you have fair or freckled skin, or you have lots of moles. If you fall under at least one of these risk factors, you will need to protect yourself more than someone without these risk factors.

What makes the sun dangerous?

Sunlight is made up of visible light and heat (infrared) - which together account for 95% of what reaches us from the sun. The other 5% of sunlight is made up of ‘ultraviolet’.  The reason that sunlight is damaging to the skin is that ultraviolet chemically reacts with and damages the components of skin cells including the DNA that makes up the genes in these cells. This damage can predispose to skin cancer. 

What are the signs and symptoms of skin cancer?

Non-melanoma skin cancers

There are two types of non-melanoma skin cancer, basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma. They are most commonly found on the face, chest and hands. These types of skin cancer are less likely to spread internally than malignant melanoma skin cancer, but squamous cell carcinomas can spread internally. 

These non-melanoma skin cancers are more common in places where the skin has become damaged by ultraviolet over the long term. Ultraviolet damaged skin is what most of us would think of us ‘ageing’ skin: wrinkled and thinned skin, with large freckles appearing.

Non-melanoma skin cancers usually appear as a lumpy lesion on the skin, increasing in size over weeks or months.

The advice would be to see your GP if you notice an unusual or persistent lesion on the skin. They can then refer you to a consultant dermatologist to examine the area and perform a biopsy if required. In many cases it will simply be a harmless lesion, but it’s important to get it checked out because if it is skin cancer, then your dermatologist can discuss a treatment plan with you, which in most cases involves the removal of the lesion and some surrounding skin.

Malignant melanoma

The most common sign of melanoma is the appearance of a new mole or a change in an existing mole. This can happen anywhere on the body, but the most affected areas are the back in men and the legs in women. You are particularly at risk if you have a family history of malignant melanoma, if you have fair skin and hair, or have lots of moles.

If you have noticed that a mole has changed, particularly in shape, edge, colour or size, then it’s important that you see your GP, who can refer you to a consultant dermatologist. They will then look at the mole and determine whether you need a biopsy. If so, the mole will be removed and analysed by a pathologist to determine whether the mole is cancerous. If skin cancer is diagnosed, your treatment options will be discussed with you. 

Particularly with malignant melanoma, it’s incredibly important that it is detected early so that treatment can begin – so ensure you keep an eye on changes to your skin and ensure you keep an eye on your partner’s skin too to spot any changes which are hard to see. The type of sun exposure that makes malignant melanoma more likely in the long term, is sudden, intense exposure causing sunburn, so avoiding sunburn in children and adults is important.

Be safe in the sun this summer and keep an eye on any changes to the skin.

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