Staying safe in the sun

Take care in the sun.

With May 2021 being one of the wettest on record and April one of the coldest, it may seem odd to be warning about the risks of sun exposure this summer. Yet, with all of us being encouraged to be outside more in the coming months, and dermatologists increasingly worried about people ignoring potential warning signs of skin cancer, it is nevertheless important to take care in the sun in the coming months.

Why it is even more important to be playing it 'sun safe' this summer

For many of us, the fact last summer was a scorcher went some way to mitigating the anxieties and uncertainties of suddenly having to deal with a pandemic, being locked down and working from home.

This year, of course, we’ve all become much more used to the idea of lockdowns and restrictions, social distancing, mask wearing, the importance of ventilation and being out and about in the great outdoors. The weather, however, hasn’t ‘played ball’ in the same way it did last year, with April 2021– while extremely dry and sunny – being the coldest since 1922 and May 2021 being one of the wettest on record.

With June 2021 (so far) looking much more settled and 'normal' for a British summer, the weather, hopefully, is beginning to change.

Yet, while the temptation may be to rush outside to the park or garden to sunbathe, whether from your home office or during your lunchbreak if you’ve now physically returned to an office, it is still worth taking care. In fact, precisely because the weather has been so grim up to now and our skin has not been used to being out in the sun, it is even more important to be playing it 'sun safe'.

Dangers of getting sunburnt

The dangers of getting sunburnt have long been recognised. There is good advice from the NHS as to what to do in the short term if you’ve overdone it in the sun. Longer term, however, too much sun exposure, whether you actually get sunburnt or not, can be an important risk factor for skin cancer, or melanoma.

From a workplace perspective, the conventional focus, very understandably, has tended to be on workers whose jobs involve working outside.

The Health and Safety Executive, for example, recommends outdoor workers during the summer months ensure they keep hydrated, have regular breaks, wear suitable protective clothing (especially a hat), and try to remain in the shade as much as possible, all of which is sensible advice.

There is another side to this conversation, however, especially now. This is that, with Covid-19 now recognised to be much less transmissible outdoors, we are all being encouraged to be outside as much as possible.

For those back in offices, that can mean taking meetings or catch-ups outdoors and, for those still working from home, it could mean taking advantage of sunny weather to decamp ‘the office’ to the garden or even a local park.

Yet, depending on your skin type, it is possible to get burnt within 15 minutes in full sunshine. Therefore, even just throwing yourself down on the grass in the park for half an hour at lunchtime to soak up some rays can cause damage if you’re not wearing sunscreen.

On top of this, a ‘British summer’ may not mean full sunshine anyway. If you’re not careful, it is still perfectly possible to get burnt on hazy, breezy or even overcast summer days – and in fact they are precisely the sorts of days when you are less likely to be careful.

Decline in skin cancer diagnoses

Another worrying element to all this is that skin specialists – dermatologists – are increasing concerned about the sharp declines they’ve seen during the pandemic in skin cancer diagnoses.

The British Association of Dermatologists on 3 May 2021 warned that melanoma diagnoses had fallen by 28% from April to November 2020 (during the pandemic) compared to the previous year. This equated to an estimated 2,671 fewer diagnoses than expected. May 2020 also saw the steepest drop in melanoma diagnoses, with just 54% of the expected number of diagnoses for the month.

One of the worries here, of course, is that melanoma skin cancer is the fifth most common cancer in the UK, with normally around 16,000 new cases diagnosed each year; one in four in people under the age of 50 and, tragically, some 2,300 people in the UK die from the condition each year.

This decline therefore could be storing up problems for the future. It is also part of a wider pandemic-related backlog in cancer diagnoses and treatments generally, fuelled by reduced access to GP services, cancelled elective surgery but also by people either being afraid to get checked out because of worries about catching Covid-19 or not wanting to ‘bother’ the hard-pressed NHS.

What should we all be doing?

So, what to do about all this? On the one hand, of course, we all love to feel the warmth of the sun on our skin and faces. It’s good for our mental health and wellbeing and exposure to some sunshine is good for us, for example in giving us the vitamin D that we need.

On the other, the key is in the word ‘some’ and taking care not to overdo it. To that end, a lot of what amounts to ‘sun safe’ advice is simply practical common sense. The NHS, however, has a valuable roundup of advice here.

The NHS advice will probably be especially useful during the summer holidays this year if you are out and about with the family. The fact, too, we may all be more likely to be holidaying at home this summer, and therefore perhaps taking less care than if we were lying on a baking overseas beach, makes these ‘safe sun’ messages even more important.

Then there is the question of awareness, knowledge and self-care around skin cancers and melanomas. You probably won’t have noticed it as the rain and hail lashed down, but the beginning of May (May 3-9) was ‘Sun Awareness Week’ in the UK, again run by the British Association of Dermatologists.

Although the event has now passed, there is a suite of posters and leaflets that you can download here, and which include a lot of useful information and awareness-raising advice. This includes guidance on the different types of skin cancers, practical advice on how to check your skin and even advice on the different types of sunscreen.

The NHS warns that you have an increased risk of melanoma if you have lots of moles on your body, particularly if they’re large (more than 5mm) or unusually shaped.

Another good tip, therefore, is to use your mobile phone to keep a photographic record of any family moles, especially if you have family members who have multiple moles. This can help you to track whether moles are changing size or shape and whether, as a result, it may be a good idea to get them checked out.

Obviously, with the pandemic, we’ve all been dealing with a lot of health-related worries in the past year or so. We all, too, want to get outside and enjoy any sunny weather when it does come. Indeed, it is good for our mental and physical health to do so, especially given how poor the weather has been up to now, and in terms of mitigating Covid-19 risk.

Yet, at the same time, let’s not forget about the importance of ‘sun safe’ messages this summer. This needs to include being alert to changes in our skin, especially changes to any moles or freckles that could be a sign of more serious health issues and which therefore should be checked out by the GP.

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