There is no safe way to get a suntan, according to new guidance produced by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE).
NHS guidelines say tanning is a sign of damaged skin and any overexposure to sunlight brings with it a risk of both the non-melanoma and melanoma types of skin cancer.
The number of people developing melanoma continues to rise in the UK, with almost 13,000 new melanoma cases diagnosed every year, resulting in more than 2,000 deaths - around six people every day. If diagnosed early, melanoma is usually curable, but if allowed to develop and spread to other organs in the body, it can become fatal.
Skin cancer is the fifth most common cancer in the UK and rates continue to climb due to the popularity of cheap holidays abroad. Many people take it for granted that getting sunburnt or tanned goes part and parcel with any summer holiday and some people are happy to lie in the sun unprotected for hours on end in a bid to get as brown as possible.
To date, doctors have often struggled to give precise advice to patients on how much sun is deemed safe and how to balance the risk of skin cancer with the risk of rickets and bone problems such as osteoporosis caused by vitamin D deficiency.
Although it’s important to ensure we get enough vitamin D from sunlight, it’s crucial we acknowledge that aiming for a tan puts us at significant risk of cancer. The irreparable damage sunburn can do to our skin should never be underestimated.
Any reddening or soreness of the skin is a sign of too much sun and an indication of skin damage. Most of us are unaware that the risk of developing melanoma more than doubles if we have suffered sunburn in the past.
In the short-term, sunburn can result in redness, blistering and swelling. Although sunburned skin will usually heal within a week, the after affects can be deadly. In the long-term, sun damage significantly heightens our chances of developing skin cancer.
The NICE guidance says GPs should not only warn people with tans that they are at risk of skin cancer, but they should also assess how much time patients can safely expose themselves to strong sunlight, with those with fair skin told to spend no more than 15 minutes unprotected in the sun.
NICE recommends that we should only go out in the sun for short periods of time between 11am and 3pm from the beginning of April to the middle of October. The guidance emphasises the importance of applying and reapplying sunscreen both “liberally and frequently” with a minimum SPF of 15.
The NHS say most people do not apply enough sunscreen and the correct amount needed for the body of an average adult is around 35ml or six to eight teaspoons of lotion. They also advise that people working outside for prolonged periods should wear protective clothing such as hats, trousers, sunglasses and long-sleeved tops.
Cases of melanoma are becoming more common in the UK due to our appetite for ultraviolet light from both the sun and sunbeds. The most common sign of melanoma is the appearance of a new mole or a change to an existing mole. But according to a study by the British Association of Dermatologists, more than three-quarters of us would not know the difference between a mole and melanoma.
Mistakes in diagnosing melanoma can clearly be very serious and our skin cancer specialists regularly witness the kind of devastating consequences that can occur due to delays in diagnosing the disease caused by errors such as pathologists misinterpreting tissue samples under the microscope. Other avoidable delays in diagnosis occur because GPs fail to recognise early melanoma symptoms and refer patients to specialists before the disease has the chance to develop.
Paul Sankey is a senior clinical negligence solicitor at Slater and Gordon Lawyers in London.