Avoiding risks of skin cancer from ultraviolet radiation (UVR)

Cancer Research UK has launched the SunSmart Campaign for 2005 and NRPB strongly supports the health promotion messages in the campaign.

The campaign is needed because skin cancer is one of the most common cancers in the UK and the number of people who get it is increasing. Most skin cancers are caused by damage from UV (ultraviolet) rays in sunlight. These cancers could be prevented if we protect ourselves from the sun. It is particularly important to protect children and avoid sunburn.

NRPB reviewed the scientific evidence1 about the health effects of ultraviolet radiation (UVR) in 2002 and produced advice to the Government, employers and the public on how to protect people from health damage due to exposure to UVR.

Exposure of the skin to UVR also results in the production of vitamin D, which is essential for calcium metabolism and may also have other beneficial effects. We are aware of recent concerns about the importance of maintaining adequate levels of vitamin D, including the statement2 recently issued by Australian colleagues. This reinforces the view that, for most people, modest exposure to sunlight, without tanning or burning, will maintain adequate levels of vitamin D. Some people may, however, be sensitive to reductions in exposure to UVR, especially in winter. A meeting in October 2005 will review the evidence in the context of the European populations. NRPB and its partners can then consider whether special advice is needed for vulnerable groups, for example older people.

Ten ways to minimise UVR induced skin and eye damage

  1. Take sensible precautions to avoid sunburn, particularly in children.
  2. Remember that a suntan offers only modest protection against further exposure. It is not an indication of good health.
  3. Limit unprotected personal exposure to solar radiation, particularly during the four hours around midday, even in the UK.
  4. Seek shade, but remember sunburn can occur even when in partial shade or when cloudy.
  5. Remember that overexposure of skin and eyes can occur while swimming and is more likely when there is a high level of reflected UVR, such as from snow and sand.
  6. Wear suitable head wear, such as a wide-brimmed hat, to reduce exposure to the face, eyes, head and neck.
  7. Cover skin with clothing giving good protection - examples are long-sleeved shirts and loose clothing with a close weave.
  8. Sunglasses should exclude both direct and peripheral exposure of the eye to UVR, i.e. be of a wrap around design.
  9. Apply sunblocks, or broad-band sunscreens with high sun protection factors (at least factor 15) to exposed skin. Apply generously and reapply frequently, especially after activities that remove them, such as swimming or towelling.
  10. Remember that certain individuals have abnormal skin responses to UVR and may need medical help. Certain prescribed drugs, medicines, foods, cosmetics and plant materials can also make people more sensitive to sunlight.

1 Health Effects from Ultraviolet Radiation: Report of an Advisory Group on Non-Ionising Radiation. Documents of the NRPB 13(1), 2002.

2 Risks and Benefits of Sun Exposure statement. March 2005. Australian and New Zealand Bone and Mineral Society, Osteoporosis Australia, Australisian College of Dermatologists and the Cancer Council Australia.

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