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Safety in the sun for children and adults

11 Jun 2020

With temperatures soaring this summer, now’s the time to make the most of the beautiful sunny days. Our guide to safety in the sun will help.

Quick Facts

  • Around 5-15 minutes sunlight 2-3 times a week in summer can help your body produce vitamin D
  • Shade, clothing and hats provide the best protection
  • Always keep babies under six months out of direct sunlight

There’s nothing quite like a sunny day to lift the spirits and make you feel good. Being in sunlight increases levels of the brain chemical serotonin in the body, also known as the ‘happiness hormone’.

Getting enough sun also has other benefits. You need sunlight to make vitamin D, which is beneficial for the health of your bones, teeth and muscles and to support your immune system and mental health.

Exposure to sunlight also helps to regulate your daily circadian rhythms, the 24-hour biological cycle that governs nearly all bodily processes. But, spending too much time in the sun can lead to sunburn, heatstroke and increase your risk of developing skin cancer. The latest figures from the World Health Organization (WHO) show that currently 2-3 million non-melanoma skin cancers, and 132,000 melanoma skin cancers, occur globally each year.

Those especially vulnerable to the sun’s effects include babies and children, adults with paler skin, those who burn easily, have moles, are redheads or work outdoors.

Children and sun safety

In children, skin is more delicate and therefore more sensitive to the sun than adult skin, and damage to skin by repeated exposure may lead to skin cancer in later life. Research shows that experiencing sunburn early in life puts you at greater risk of skin cancer in later years.

Make sure children spend more time in the shade than direct sunlight and cover them up with loose, comfortable clothing such as T-shirts, shorts, sundresses, hats and sunglasses.
Choose hats they’ll enjoy wearing.

Research has shown that parents need to pay special attention to sun protection for boys of primary school age and girls and boys approaching adolescence as they can be less likely to follow sun safety behaviours. Always keep babies aged under 6 months out of the sun.

General guidelines for sun protection

Here are some general guidelines from the WHO to keep you sun safe:

  • Limit time in the midday sun
    In the UK, the sun’s UV rays are the strongest between 11am and 4pm. As much as possible, limit your exposure to the sun during these hours to 5-15 minutes (see below).

  • Watch the UV Index (UVI) in the country you are in
    This helps you plan your outdoor activities to prevent overexposure to the sun’s rays. Its numerical value ranges from zero upwards. The higher the UVI, the more potential for skin damage and the less time it takes for that damage to occur. While you should always take precautions against overexposure, take special care to adopt sun safety practices when the UVI is moderate or above. In the UK, UV Index is measured by the Met Office.

  • Use shade wisely
    Seek shade when UV rays are the most intense, but keep in mind that shade from trees, umbrellas or canopies do not offer complete sun protection.

  • Wear protective clothing
    A hat with a wide brim offers good sun protection for your eyes, ears, face and the back of your neck. Tightly woven, loose-fitting clothes will provide additional protection from the sun.

  • Use sunscreen
    Use a broad-spectrum sunscreen of SPF 50+ that protects against UVA and UVB rays (it will state this on the label). Apply liberally and re-apply every 2 hours or after working, swimming, playing or exercising outdoors.

The sun and vitamin D
Your body creates vitamin D from direct sunlight on the skin when you’re outdoors. We need vitamin D to absorb calcium and phosphate from our diet and to keep bones, teeth, muscles and the immune system healthy. One study showed that vitamin D can help to protect against flu and colds too.

For people who live in hotter, sunnier climates, it’s easier to get vitamin D from the sun all year round. But during the winter generally there is not enough UVB radiation from sunlight to make enough vitamin D. So, it’s important to eat more foods that contain vitamin D such as oily fish, eggs, mushrooms and fortified foods and, in many cases, to take a daily vitamin D supplement.

How much sun do you need for health?
According to the WHO, there is no doubt that a little sunlight is good for you. Just 5-15 minutes of casual sun exposure of hands, face and arms, 2-3 times a week during the summer months is sufficient (closer to the equator, where UV levels are higher, even shorter periods of exposure suffice).

This small amount of sun exposure around midday can help your body to make vitamin D through your skin. This occurs when UVB rays hit exposed skin at a certain angle and this is most present in midday sunlight. There’s a simple way to gauge this – if your shadow is longer than your body height, then the sun is at too low an angle in the sky to stimulate vitamin D production.

The balance between sun protection and exposure
As with many things, moderation is key when it comes to sun exposure. Most people can stay in the sun safely for about 5-15 minutes without sunscreen. But how long you can spend will depend on your skin colour. For example, if you’re very pale, or a red-haired head, this might be as little as 5 minutes before your skin burns and damage occurs. That’s why everyone needs to protect your skin if you’re spending longer periods in the sun by seeking shade, covering up with protective clothing and using a broad-spectrum sunscreen that protects against both UVA and UVB rays.

Always check the expiry date on your sunscreen and store below 30C. Most sunscreens are made to last around 1-3 years. But, to be on the safe side, it’s best to replace your sunscreen every year.

The sun and eyes
When your eyes are exposed to daylight, it helps regulate your ‘circadian rhythm’, or sleep-wake cycle. This influences many bodily processes. For example, direct sunlight stimulates the retina of the eye. This regulates your body’s production of the hormone melatonin, which is important for both mood and sleep.

However, too much continuous bright sunlight can damage the eyes. This can lead to conditions such as cataracts, the most common cause of treatable blindness, or macular degeneration, a common condition in people aged over 60.

So, wear sunglasses for most of the time you spend in the sun. Choose a pair that offer 100% UV protection. Look out for the British Kitemark or CE mark, check for European Standard EN1836 and British Standard BS 27241987 on the tag when you’re buying.

Hemal Shah
Lead GP, Livi
Last updated:

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