One of the best things about summertime is soaking up the sun, whether on a well deserved holiday or just getting a quick lunchtime break from the office. But how much sun exposure is good for you, and when does it become harmful? We asked Dr James Shelley, Consultant Dermatologist at Cromwell Hospital.

Benefits and risks of the sun

Exposure to the sun’s rays has health benefits but also some risks. The benefits include vitamin D production – important for maintaining healthy bones – and lifting the mood to give a real sense of wellbeing. But it is well known that sun exposure can also increase the risk of skin cancer (including melanoma), stimulate changes in moles, and cause premature skin ageing.

The benefits and risks need to be balanced according to individual circumstances. People who are most at risk of developing skin cancer and premature skin ageing are those who have pale skin, blond or red hair, blue eyes, and who freckle easily. Children are also very sensitive to sun exposure and can burn easily.

Protecting yourself from the sun

To avoid the adverse effects of sun exposure, both adults and children should stay in the shade around midday when the sun is at its strongest, cover up with clothes, wear a wide brimmed hat and sunglasses, and apply a high factor sun cream to any exposed skin. Sun cream should be reapplied every two to three hours, and always after swimming.

If you are very strict about sun protection however there is a risk of vitamin D deficiency, especially for people who do not eat much oily fish (a good source of vitamin D) or those of a darker skin type who naturally need more sun exposure to make vitamin D. In general, for people of a darker skin type, being vitamin D deficient is more of a risk than skin cancer, so sun protection is less important for this group and vitamin D supplements may be useful.

Supplements may also be beneficial for pregnant or breastfeeding women and young children whose requirements for vitamin D are naturally high.

Pay attention to moles

You may notice your moles more in summer, and any changes in them. Often these changes do not indicate anything abnormal, but a change can be the first sign of a skin cancer developing.

Things to look out for include: darkening of the mole, developing an irregular edge or colour, bleeding, itching, or simply a new mole appearing or growing. If any of these are noticed then further assessment by a GP or dermatologist would be recommended.

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