Together we will beat cancer


We all love talking about the weather. And it’s easy for myths about sun protection to spread. Last year we tackled 12 common sun safety myths, but there are still plenty more alternative facts out there.

We’ve picked out 10 new myths that we hear a lot.

But one fact to remember is to not let sunburn catch you out, because too much UV from the sun (or sunbeds) causes most cases of skin cancer. This might feel like old news, but rates of melanoma (the most serious type of skin cancer) are still increasing.

By dodging these myths, we can all do our best to protect ourselves when the sun is strong.

Myth 1: ‘The sun is strongest when it’s hottest’

The heat of the sun doesn’t come from its skin-damaging UV rays. The UV rays are always strongest when the sun is highest in the sky, which in the UK summer is between 11am and 3pm (it can be different abroad). But the temperature varies more and tends to be highest slightly later. So if you want to get out and enjoy the nice weather later in the day when it’s still warm, the risk of burning won’t be as high.

Myth 2: ‘You can only burn in the middle of summer’

The sun can be strong enough to burn in the UK from the start of April to the end of September, even if it doesn’t feel that warm, or it’s a cloudy day. The UV Index can tell you how strong the sun is where you are today, you can find it on weather forecasts and the met office website. If the UV index is 3 or above think about protecting your skin. And take extra care if you get sunburnt easily or have a lighter skin tone.

Myth 3: ‘Sun damage always looks red and peely’

Not necessarily. If your skin’s gone red or pink in the sun, that’s sunburn, and it’s dangerous due to the damage the UV rays cause to DNA inside cells. If your skin goes pink but then a tan develops that still counts as having burnt.

But you can’t always see the damage. For people with naturally darker skin it might just feel irritated, tender or itchy rather than your skin changing colour.

Myth 4: ‘The odd sunburn doesn’t make much difference’

Getting sunburnt doesn’t mean you will definitely develop skin cancer. But sunburn just once every 2 years can triple the risk of melanoma. So if you have had sunburn in the past, it’s a good idea to think about what more you can do to protect your skin next time.

Myth 5: ‘Higher SPF sunscreens are lots better than lower SPF ones’

No sunscreen is 100% effective. There’s some evidence that using sunscreen with SPF15+ reduces the risk of melanoma compared with using no sunscreen or a lower SPF. But going higher than SPF15 might not offer the protection boost you’d expect.

Researchers have found that as SPF increases, the additional UV that sunscreen can absorb tails off, offering less and less added protection. And research suggests that people using sunscreen with a higher SPF may stay out in the sun longer, increasing their risk of sun damage.

If it’s applied properly, and used in combination with covering up and seeking shade, SPF15 should be enough to protect you wherever you are in the world. And make sure you look for a star rating of 4 or 5 as well.

This is general guidance only. If your doctor has recommended you use a higher SPF sunscreen because of a specific medical condition, you should follow this advice.

Myth 6: ‘A ‘base tan’ will protect me on holiday’

Some people think a pre-holiday tan or sunbed tans will protect them from burning, but a tan offers very little protection against the sun. Some studies have found that tans only offer protection equivalent to using factor 3 sunscreen. And tans from sunbeds could be as low as SPF 1.

Myth 7: ‘Putting sunscreen on once is enough’

It’s not. Even if it says once-a-day on the label, all sunscreens should be re-applied regularly. Some products rub, wash or sweat off more easily than others. But it’s also really easy to miss bits of your body so don’t be shy with it, put plenty on. The best way to use sunscreen is to think of it as the last line of defence for the parts of your body you can’t cover up with clothes.

Myth 8: ‘Sunbeds are a safer way to tan’

This myth is a persistent one. But the evidence is clear, sunbeds cause skin cancer and there’s no such thing as a safe tan. A tan is a sign that your body is trying to repair the damage caused by UV rays. That’s why we want to see more people embracing their natural skin colour through our Own Your Tone campaign.

Myth 9: ‘Sunscreen lasts forever’

We’ve probably all turned to that old bottle of sunscreen at the back of the cupboard that’s been there for an unknown number of years. But most sunscreens expire. Look out for a small open jar icon on the bottle with the number of months the product can be used after opening. And like most cosmetics, sunscreens should be stored in a cool place and not in direct sunlight.

Fear not though. You don’t need to worry about the cost of replacing expensive sunscreens. When it comes to protection, price doesn’t matter it’s the SPF and star rating that does.

Myth 10: ‘You can’t get sun damage through glass’

Indoors you’re mostly protected from sunburn, but some UV rays can get through glass. So if you spend lots of time driving or sitting in a conservatory when the sun is strong, then long-term you might be at risk of damage from UVA rays. If you’re stuck by the window, protect your skin with clothes and sunscreen with 4 or more stars.

Nikki Smith is a health information manager at Cancer Research UK

Make sure you take a look at the 12 other sun safety myths we’ve covered before, including how to get a good balance for vitamin D, deceiving cloudy days and why you shouldn’t rely on SPF in make up.

There’s also more information on risk of burning and how best to protect your skin on our website.


Katie Edmunds August 14, 2017

Hi Raymond,

Thanks for your question.

If a health professional has recommended you use a certain SPF – your best bet is to talk to them about what’s right for you. For the general public though, sunscreen should be thought of as the last line of defence when it comes to sun protection. When the sun is strong, Cancer Research UK recommends people use a combination of shade, clothing (for the face specifically, a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses), and sunscreen on the parts you can’t cover. Sunscreen with SPF 15 and 4 or more stars should be enough to protect you wherever you are in the world, and higher SPFs don’t add a lot of extra protection. But remember sunscreen isn’t bulletproof, so don’t rely on it alone. Read more about ways to protect yourself in the sun here.

Best wishes,
Katie, Cancer Research UK

Nikki Smith August 4, 2017

Hi Ad,

Thanks for your comment.

Anyone can get sunburnt or develop skin cancer – but different people will have different levels of risk. Generally, people with naturally darker skin burn less easily and have a lower risk of skin cancer. You can’t always see sunburn – for people with darker skin, your skin may feel irritated, tender, or itchy, rather than look red or pink.

On the other hand, people with darker skin, for example those of African, Caribbean or South Asian family origin, are likely to need to spend longer in the sun to make enough vitamin D, which is important for bone health. The government also recommends people with dark skin think about taking a vitamin D supplement.

You’re the best person to know how your skin reacts in the sun. Get to know your skin and when it needs protecting. If you do get caught out, learn from past experience and take better care next time by seeking shade, covering up with clothing, and using sunscreen with at least SPF 15 and 4 or 5 stars.

Best wishes,
Nikki, Cancer Research UK

Chris Poole July 26, 2017

Debunking the myths is all very well given that instances of melanoma are on the rise, but so is rickets in children due to vitamin D deficiency. Exposure to the sun in the spring, summer and autumn is essential for healthy bones to develop because calcium cannot be converted into bone without vitamin D, so lets not over do the scare stories. As for myth 5, our daughter-in-law has very pale sensitive skin and starts to burn after relatively short exposure with factor 50 plastered on. At 15 she her skin goes red as soon as she is exposed to the sun, as was evidenced on our recent holiday.

Nikki Smith July 21, 2017

Hi Amanda,

Thank you for your comment. There are some useful graphs at the end of this 2011 review showing that however you measure it, as SPF increases, sunscreens provide less and less extra protection. There is also a lack of good quality research showing that higher SPF sunscreens are significantly more protective than SPF15 sunscreens – but as we’ve mentioned, there is some research suggesting using higher SPFs could affect how people behave and lead to a greater risk of sun damage. However, there is evidence to suggest that using at least SPF15 is better than using sunscreens with SPFs lower than 15.

Along with organisations like NICE, WHO and the US Surgeon General, we recommend that people use shade and clothing to protect their skin, and sunscreen on the parts that are left exposed. Studies (like this one) have shown that shade and clothing are more effective than sunscreen at preventing sunburn.

Best wishes,
Nikki, Cancer Research UK

Ad July 21, 2017

Nothing in here about people who have dark skin. Black people don’t need to wear sunscreen – myth or fact? Black people don’t get sunburned – myth or fact? Black people can’t get skin cancer – myth or fact? These are all statements that I’ve heard and it’s difficult to find information about this from reliable UK websites. Please don’t assume that GPs know about skin health in relation to dark skin because they often don’t!

Patricia Dhillon July 16, 2017

The information in Myth 5 was a shock! I read it several times to be sure I had understood it fully. Is the sun protection industry really based on a myth? Higher than SPF 15 offers little extra protection? Expensive products are not required? If all this is so why isn’t it widely publicised? I consider myself to be reasonably up to date in health matters and am pro-active in caring for my own body.
I have never seen this comment before and agree with Amanda Watson about the sources of this information
Further clarification please

Amanda Watson July 12, 2017

Good Afternoon. Despite extra clarification on Myth 5 no evidence was brought to support the statement that “Factors above SPF15 don’t offer as much extra protection as you may think” but a statement of “studies have shown higher factors can encourage people to spend longer in the sun, perhaps subconsciously, raising the risk of damage” has been attributed to the second part. Where are the studies for the first part of the statement? What is the discrepancy ratio? Please offer clarification or cite your sources. As UV Rays can travel through clothing suggesting that clothing and shade should be thought of first is poor advice. suncreen plus clothing and shade where possible would have been a better suggestion.Best regards Amanda

Bette Watts July 9, 2017

Thank you
Very helpful

Linda Kilpatrick July 8, 2017

I have had Malignant Melanoma and have always been told minimum factor 30 but preferably factor 50. I have the typical red hair and extremely sensitive pale skin so have to cover up as well as using high factor. People need to be aware that they can still burn when wearing certain clothes.

Joanne Young July 8, 2017

I’m worried that your ‘myth 5’ explanation will discourage people from using a higher SPF than 15. I have dark skin and work in my garden most days always applying sunscreen usually SPF 20 or higher. If I were to use 15 I know I would burn even when I’m quite tanned. Obviously I prefer not to burn. So am I not giving my skin any protection from using SPF 30?

Nikki Smith July 7, 2017

Hi Elizabeth, thank you for your comment.
The best ways to protect your skin when the sun is strong are to spend some time in the shade between 11am and 3pm, use clothing to cover up, and sunscreen for the bits that aren’t covered. You can find out more on our sun webpages and our previous sun myths blog post. If you’re worried about how your medication or medical treatment affects your skin cancer risk, it’s best to discuss this with your doctor, who will be able to advise you on any specific precautions to take.
Nikki, Cancer Research UK

Nikki Smith July 7, 2017

Sunlight is the main source of vitamin D, but the amount of time you need to spend in the sun to get enough vitamin D varies from person to person. Enjoying the sun safely, whilst taking care not to burn, should help most people get the right balance. But if you know you have low vitamin D levels, or have a medical condition, talk to your doctor about the best way for you to get the vitamin D that you need. More broadly, the government recommends certain groups of people take a daily 10mcg vitamin D supplement all year round, and recommends everyone considers taking one during the winter months, when the UK sun isn’t strong enough to help us make vitamin D. You can read more about their guidance on vitamin D here.
Nikki, Cancer Research UK

Andrew Cherowbrier July 7, 2017

The video I saw via facebook confuses the facts and myths. Once it is running you cant tell whether the page that only says “myth” or” fact” relates to the video before or after. each one needs to also sya what was the fact and what was the myth.
The text makes it clear, but most will not go that far.

Barbara Vest July 6, 2017

I had a melanoma in situ removed 4 years ago and was recommended to apply factor 50 sun screen. Not sure my consultant would agree with your Myth 5 interpretation. I would never use a lower factor sunscreen. I will double check when I go see my consultant in September