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Sun Awareness Week survey reveals lack of knowledge of skin cancer risk

Pale skinned people who are most at risk of skin cancer are ignoring sun safety advice, according to research released today to launch Sun Awareness Week 2009.

The survey of 1500 UK adults looked at people’s behaviour in the sun in relation to their individual risk of skin cancer, as well as their understanding of the need to check the skin for cancer, and their choice of sun protection products.

Skin types

The survey revealed that less than half (45%) of people with skin type 1 or 2 - pale skin which easily sunburns and is at the greatest risk of skin cancer - always use a sunscreen when out in the sun.

Three quarters (75%) of those who took part in the survey sunbathe to get a tan. Of particular concern, half (50%)of those with skin types 1 or 2 sunbathe. These skin types, who sunburn rapidly and should always use sun protection on sunny days, are strongly advised against sunbathing.

Worryingly, over a third (39%) of people who have skin types 1 or 2 admitted to having used sunbeds.

However, 30 percent of naturally dark skinned people who never sunburn said that they always wear sunscreen in sunny weather. These people could be putting themselves at risk of vitamin D deficiency.

Rebecca Freeman of the British Association of Dermatologists explains: “This research shows that people with different skin types are not always protecting their skin to the appropriate level. There seems to be some confusion around which skin types need to take most care in the sun and which need minimal protection.

“Pale skin types are at the highest risk of skin cancer, but our survey shows that these people sunbathe, use sunbeds, and don’t always use sunscreen in the sun. However, naturally dark skinned people, such as African-Caribbean or dark Asian skin types, only really need to protect their skin in intense sunshine and during prolonged sun exposure.

“In fact, these skin types are most at risk of vitamin D deficiency if sun exposure is too limited. We need to educate people about sun protection for different skin types, as it may be that we are currently using a ‘one size fits all’ message that isn’t appropriate for everyone.”

Checking the skin

The survey was carried out at a series of mole check clinics held by the association, which were not advertised beforehand, and all attendance was spontaneous. Despite this, 85 percent of people attending the event had a mole that was of particular concern, and yet a worrying 67 percent of them had not seen a doctor about the mole before.

Early detection is essential in the treatment of skin cancer; however an alarming two thirds (63%) of people never check their skin for changes that might indicate a skin cancer.

President of the British Association of Dermatologists Dr Mark Goodfield said: “Diagnosing a skin cancer early significantly impacts on how successfully it can be treated. People should be checking their skin every month or so – if you already do testicular or breast self examinations, why not check your skin at the same time? Get a friend or partner to look at your back, neck, scalp and ears as it can be hard to check these areas yourself. If you notice any changes to your skin, such as a changing mole or a wound that won’t heal, get yourself to your GP.”


Despite skin cancer rates increasing faster than any other cancer, with figures doubling every 10 to 20 years, a staggering one in four (25%) people who rarely or never use sunscreen also regularly sunbathe (between five and fifteen times a year).

The survey also revealed that one in seven people (15%) who use sunscreen use a ‘low protection’ product of below SPF 15. Only one on four people (27%)use a ‘high protection’ sunscreen (SPF 30) which is the minimum protection recommended by the British Association of Dermatologists.*

Sun Awareness campaign

The British Association of Dermatologists’ Sun Awareness campaign aims to educate people on ‘early detection’ of skin cancer, and where to seek help if you have any concerns about your skin.

As part of this, the British Association of Dermatologists created the ABCD-Easy guide to mole checks, to detect the signs of melanoma – the deadliest type of skin cancer. Look out for:

Asymmetry - the two halves of the area may differ in shape

Border - the edges of the area may be irregular or blurred, and sometimes show notches

Colour - this may be uneven. Different shades of black, brown and pink may be seen

Diameter - most melanomas are at least 6mm in diameter. Report any change in size, shape or diameter to your doctor

Expert - if in doubt, check it out! If your GP is concerned about your skin, make sure you see a Consultant Dermatologist, the most expert person to diagnose a skin cancer. Your GP can refer you via the NHS

Survey summary:

Only 45% of people with skin types 1 or 2 always use a sunscreen in the sun
75% sunbathe and 50% of those with skin types 1 or 2 sunbathe
39% of skin types 1 or 2 have used sunbeds
30% of those with naturally dark skin who never sunburn always use sunscreen in the sun
85% of participants had a mole that was of particular concern, 67% of them had never seen a doctor about the mole before
63% never check their skin for changes
25% of those who never or rarely use sunscreen regularly sunbathe
15% of those who use sunscreen only use a low protection product. Only 27% use high protection.

- Ends-

Note to editors:

Sun Awareness Week takes place from May 11th to 17th May. Case studies and spokespeople are available on request. The Sun Awareness campaign runs throughout the summer.

The survey of 1515 adults was conducted by the British Association of Dermatologists.

*SPF stands for Sun Protection Factor and is a measure of the level of UVB protection in a sunscreen. Generally it has been advised that people should select sunscreens with SPF 30 or higher (Palm and O’Donoghue, 2007). This is because people generally do not apply sufficient quantities of the product. Importantly, the SPF is measured with a sunscreen application thickness of 2 mg/cm; in reality, subjects tend to apply much less of the product, often at an average thickness of just 0.5-1.0 mg/cm (Lautenschlager et al., 2007; Stokes and Diffey, 1997). If a more uniform and appropriate application of sunscreens were employed, there would be no need for sun protection factors higher than 15 (Diffey, 2000). The recommended SPF 30 takes into account these behavioural factors that lead to a reduced level of protection.

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