All About Sunburn, Sunscreen, Skin Cancer and Melanoma

Updated on March 24, 2020
Beth Eaglescliffe profile image

Scientist and author, Beth enjoys living life in the slow lane. She takes time to enjoy the little things in life.

Sunburn can be painful and may lead to skin cancer.
Sunburn can be painful and may lead to skin cancer. | Source

How to Protect Your Skin From Sunburn

  1. If your skin is exposed to the sun, protect it with UVA/UVB sunscreen with SPF 20 or higher.
  2. Avoid tanning, and never use UV sunbeds.
  3. Keep out of the sun between 10 am and 4 pm.
  4. Even at other times of the day, seek out shade.
  5. Cover up against the sun with long sleeves, long pants, wide-brimmed floppy hat, and UV-blocking sunglasses.
  6. Check the SPF and star ratings on a product to see how much protection it gives.

Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the United States. Current estimates are that one in five Americans will develop skin cancer in their lifetime. It is estimated that nearly 9,500 people in the U.S. are diagnosed with skin cancer every day. Melanoma rates in the United States doubled from 1982 to 2011.

— American Academy of Dermatology 2017

Reduce Your Risk of Skin Cancer and Melanoma

Sunshine is what makes a holiday for many people, but don't overdo it. It's easy to stay outside for too long; playing beach games, or falling asleep on a lounger. But did you know that skin cancer is now the most common form of cancer in many countries? The good news is that if it's identified early enough, it's also one of the most treatable.

Enjoy the holiday sunshine, but make sure you protect your skin. Avoid sunburn and you can reduce the risk of the sun's rays irreparably damaging your skin. Burns to the dermis and epidermis lead to cell changes and melanoma. Melanomas are life-changing and can be terminal. The following video shows how skin cancer could affect you.

Dear 16-Year-Old Me: Lives Touched by Melanoma

Sunscreen Creams Protect Against UVA and UVB Rays

SPF (Sun Protection Factor) ratings relate to Ultra-Violet B rays (UVB). These are short rays that penetrate the upper layers of the skin and cause burning. The SPF number indicates how long you can remain in the sun if your skin is covered with that sunscreen. Your unprotected skin may start to burn after 10 minutes in the sun. Wearing an SPF15 cream would increase your “start to burn” time to 150 minutes (10 x 15). The higher the SP number, the longer you could stay in the sun before your skin is affected by UVB rays.

Star ratings (1 to 5 stars) are a new scoring system and do not appear on all sun creams. They indicate the level of protection against Ultra-Violet A rays (UVA). UVA penetrates to the deeper layers of your skin. They cause less visible, but more serious long-term damage than UVB rays. The higher the star rating the better and most experts recommend a minimum of 4 stars.

Do you wear sunscreen when you go outside in the sun?

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Not All Sunscreens Give Equal Protection

Research (2019) by Consumer Reports shows that not all sun creams provide the protection claimed on the bottle. Their key finding is that expensive brands do not necessarily give the best sun shield. Their top four sunscreen best buys for 2019 are LaRoche-Posay Melt-in Sunscreen Milk SPF50, Bullfrog Land Sport Quik Gel SP50, Trader Joe’s Spray Sunscreen SP50, and Banana Boat SunComfort Clear UltraMist Spray SPF50+.

They also recommend Walgreens Hydrating Lotion, SPF 50 which I use as it is environmentally friendly. It is made without oxybenzone which some scientists say is harmful to the environment.

All the products named here are broad-spectrum sun creams which means they protect against both UVA and UVB rays.

Top Sunscreens For Summer 2019 and 2020

How to Use Sunscreen Effectively

Apply at least 15 to 30 minutes before you go into the sun.

  • Reapply every two hours.
  • Reapply after swimming, washing or toweling down skin.
  • Use enough sun cream! Apply at least one teaspoonful to each arm, leg, bums, tums, in fact each part of your body needs at least a teaspoonful.
  • Ask a friend or family member to apply sunscreen to areas you cannot reach.

Why Are Skin Cancer Rates Increasing?

No-one really knows why skin cancer and melanoma rates are increasing. It may be that as people live longer, they have more time to develop the disease. It could be we spend more time in the sun than our forebears did, so increasing our risk. There may be genetic factors involved. Or there could be lifestyle changes through increased affluence that have heightened our susceptibility. There might also be environmental factors linked to climate change such as a decrease in sun protection provided by the ozone layer. There are many theories but no certainties.

Skin cancer and melanoma can be disfiguring and are sometimes fatal. It only takes a few moments to apply sunscreen or cover up against the sun and it could save your life. If you notice any of the following ABCDE changes to any moles or freckles on your body (see table below) you should visit your doctor for advice as soon as possible.

The ABCDE guide to the signs of Melanoma.
The ABCDE guide to the signs of Melanoma. | Source

The ABCDE Guide to Signs of Melanoma

A is for Asymmetry
One half of a mole or birthmark does not match the other.
B is for Border
The edges are irregular, ragged, notched, or blurred.
C is for Color
The color is not the same all over and may include different shades of brown or black, or sometimes with patches of pink, red, white, or blue.
D is for Diameter
The spot is larger than 6 millimeters across (about ¼ inch – the size of a pencil eraser), although melanomas can sometimes be smaller than this.
E is for Evolving
The mole is changing in size, shape, or color.
If you notice any of these changes on your body, seek medical advice as soon as possible.

Melanoma is more than 20 times more common in whites than in African Americans. Overall, the lifetime risk of getting melanoma is about 2.5% (1 in 40) for whites, 0.1% (1 in 1,000) for blacks, and 0.5% (1 in 200) for Hispanics.

— American Cancer Society

Further Information About Melanoma and Skin Cancer

The following websites have up-to-date statistics and advice relating to skin cancer.

American Cancer Society

American Academy of Dermatology

Cancer Research UK

Tenovus Cancer Care

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.


Submit a Comment
  • Eurofile profile image

    Liz Westwood 

    3 months ago from UK

    This is a very useful article. My attitude to the sun has definitely changed in recent years. I really cringe now when I see people badly sunburnt. SPF 50 regularly applied plus a hat are now part of my routine in a hot climate.


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