Be safe in the sun

Expert tips on being sun-safe and advice on self-tanning

28 December 2004
by Brenda Mapane

The sun is your skin's greatest enemy, causing premature ageing and possiby even skin cancer. We all love spending time in the sun – and we need it! A healthy dose of vitamin D is crucial to our mental health. But as much as we crave it's heat and light, there is a dark side to sunlight from which we need to protect ourselves. Here are some expert tips for staying sun-safe, plus recommendations to help you get a perfect, even self-tan all summer round.


The sun emits invisible ultraviolet rays, which are responsible for sunburn, premature ageing and other types of skin damage, including cancer. UVA radiation is the main culprit because it penetrates deeper, but UVB radiation also contributes to skin damage.

Short-term effects

When you are exposed to the sun, your skin goes through a series of changes.

Suntan: although many people love the look of a golden tan, it isn't a sign of good health. The body produces a pigment called melanin as a defence mechanism, which turns the skin brown. Tanning causes skin to age prematurely. The more you tan, the more you age your skin, leading to wrinkles, a coarse texture and pigmentation.

Sunburn: sunburns occur when the body receives excessive amounts of radiation. Along with redness and swelling, the skin may blister, which indicates a second-degree burn. The full effect of the sun is not experienced until 14 to 24 hours later, so you may not initially realise how bad the burn is.

Not-so-sunny future

In the long term, sun exposure can cause the skin to age, wrinkle, thicken, dry out, freckle, blemish, and develop a rough texture. In some people, repeated tanning or sunburns can lead to cellular mutations in the skin that result in skin cancer.

Types of skin cancer

There are three basic types of skin cancer: basal-cell carcinoma, squamous-cell carcinoma and melanoma. The first two types are common and easily curable, while the third type, if not detected early, can be very dangerous and even deadly. Risk factors include excessive sun exposure and a naturally fair complexion. The amount of sun that would be considered excessive varies from person to person, but it is important to remember that no one is immune to the harmful rays of the sun.

The fairer your skin, the greater your risk of developing skin cancer. However, if you have dark-brown or black skin, you're still vulnerable. The greatest risk areas for these skin types are the palms of the hands, the soles of the feet, and under the nails.


If you keep your exposure to the sun to a minimum, your risks of premature ageing and skin cancer are significantly reduced. Make sure your whole family is sun-safe:

  1. Try and avoid the sun between 10am and 3pm, when UV levels are at their highest.
  2. Wear protective clothing. Cover up with a wide-brimmed hat and long- sleeved tightly woven shirts and pants, to ensure that the sun can't penetrate.
  3. Use sunscreens. The Cancer Association of South Africa (CANSA) recommends that you use a broad-spectrum sunscreen (this means it blocks both UVA and UVB radiation), with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 15 or higher. Apply the sunscreen to any part of the body that is not protected by clothing. Remember to reapply the sunscreen throughout the day for it to be effective.
  4. Know the ways of the rays. You can get burned just as easily on a cloudy day as you can on a sunny day. Also, it is important to know that the sun's rays can penetrate water up to a metre deep.
  5. Don't use sunlamps or tanning parlours. These methods are just as harmful as sun exposure.

Children and the sun

Children can develop skin damage which may not show up until later in life. A blistering sunburn before the age of 10 will double the probability of him or her developing malignant melanoma sometime during their lifetime.

According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, 80 percent of our lifetime sun exposure occurs before the age of 18.

CANSA suggests the following guidelines to protect your children from the sun:

  • Shadow test If the shadow is shorter than the child, the sun is at its strongest and most dangerous point. Ultraviolet sunblock with an SPF of 15 or greater should always be used if the child is exposed to the sun.
  • Now! Protect children from the harmful effects of the sun today!

Bronze in a bottle

Self-tanners allow you to have that tanned look without the damaging effects of sun exposure. New formulations develop faster, you get sprays that you can hold upside-down, different shades for different skin tones and even self-tanners that contain iridescent powder for a sparkle AND a tan!

Apply self-tan like a pro

To get an even, natural-looking result, try the following tips:

  1. Exfoliate and moisturise before applying a self-tanner.
  2. Wash your hands at least every five minutes during application. Use a soapy nailbrush to scrub your palms, fingers and fingernails.
  3. Five to 10 minutes after applying self-tanner, rub areas such as elbows and knees with a little body lotion to lighten the effect. Rub lotion around your wrists and the backs of your hands to blend with your arms, and around your ankles and the tops of your feet to blend with your legs.
  4. If a dark self-tanner looks unnatural on your hands and feet, use a lighter shade on those areas and the dark formula everywhere else.
  5. Your belly button often absorbs too much self-tanner. Rub it with a cotton swab dipped in body lotion after you apply your self-tanner to lighten the shade slightly. If it is still too dark, rub it with a cotton swab dipped in liquid eye make-up remover.
  6. If the sunless tanning lotion has left you feeling sticky, apply baby powder or talc to your skin 30 minutes to an hour after applying the self-tanner. Don't rub it in, though!
  7. Apply moisturiser to your ‘tan' every day, to make it last longer.

Remember, most self-tanners are purely cosmetic and don't contain an SPF, so they don't offer you any protection if you do spend some time in the sun. Make sure you apply a sunscreen with an appropriate SPF of 15 or higher if you're going to be enjoying the sunshine.

Warning signs of skin cancer

Check your skin regularly for signs of melanoma, a deadly cancer that has been associated with UV light. If you have any concerns, visit your healthcare practitioner for a professional opinion. The warning signs can be easily remembered as the ABCs of skin cancer:

  • A – Asymmetry – most skin growths are symmetrical. An abnormal growth may have one side that looks different to the other side.
  • B – Border – watch for an irregular border, or one with roughly demarcated edges.
  • C – Colour – look for lesions that have changed colour over time, or that are multicoloured.
  • D – Diameter – be suspicious of lesions, growths or moles that are larger than 5mm in diameter.

You should also watch for the following skin changes:

  • A mole that bleeds
  • A mole that grows fast
  • A scaly or crusted growth
  • A sore that won't heal
  • A mole that itches
  • A place that feels rough, like sandpaper.

If a mole has changed in size, colour or shape, or you have a new mole that doesn't look like your other moles, visit your healthcare practitioner.



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