A few years ago, when on holiday in Spain, I fell asleep face down on an inflatable pineapple. I drifted around the pool for hours, while the sun had its wicked way with me. I woke to outrageously sore skin all the way down my back and legs, while later developed to reveal the perfect outline of the bow of the bikini I had been wearing, burnt into my back. The whole of my back was so scorched, I couldn't sit down without sharply inhaling for the rest of the holiday.
It's a story that many of us will be familiar with. While we may look back and laugh at our stupidity, it also raises the question of what may be the lasting damage of those inopportune naps in the midday sun, or the times we slathered on the tanning-oil, or booked in for a session on the sunbed.
We called upon Dr Catherine Borysiewicz, Consultant Dermatologist at the , to talk all things sun damage ahead of your next summer jaunt...
What are the different signs of sun damage?
According to Dr Borysiewicz, sun damage comes in many different forms. "Some of the different signs and symptoms of sun damage are age spots, uneven pigmentation, melasma [brown or grey patches of skin], freckles, moles, wrinkles, fine lines, skin laxity, spider veins and tanning are all signs of damage," she explains.
While the list may seem extensive, especially to include a tan as a sign of sun damage, but ultimately a tan means that the skin has been exposed to too much UV, which stimulates an increase of melanin (the dark pigment that gives the appearance of a tan) in an attempt to prevent any further damage.
Can you still have sun damage even if you don't burn?
"It's important to realise that sun damage can still occur without creating a noticeable sunburn," explains Dr Borysiewicz.
Apparently, how easily a person will burn depends on where they fall on the Fitzpatrick skin type scale, which categorises people into six skin types. A person with skin type 1 is the palest, has blue or grey eyes, blonde or red hair, freckles and who always burns in the sun.
A person with skin type 6 is the darkest, with brownish black eyes, black hair and who never burns. "Depending on your Fitzpatrick skin type, the amount of time you can spend in the sun without burning will vary."
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What are the warning signs when it comes to moles?
According to Dr Borysiewicz, the easiest thing to remember when it comes to moles is the ABCD rule. "Asymmetry, border, colour, diameter," she says.
The warning signs according to this rule would be an asymmetric mole where the two halves of the area differ in shape, an irregular or blurred border, an uneven colour (different shades of black, brown and pink may be seen), over 6mm in diameter or a change in size. "If in doubt, always check with an expert," adds Dr Borysiewicz.
Can you ever be exposed to sun safely?
Dr Borysiewicz recommends applying a high factor SPF50 with good UVA protection (look for UVA shield or 5* on the bottle) every day to exposed skin- especially face, chest and hands.
However she warns that applying a sunblock doesn’t mean it’s safe to stay out all day; "Applying a sunscreen can extend the amount of time before you burn, but this time depends on the SPF- but be warned that most people will only apply 25% of sunscreen that is required to achieve the SPF on the label- this means a 25% application of a factor 50 gives you roughly 7 times your burn time- so if you burn in 10 minutes, you will have roughly 70 min before burning."
To avoid burning, she recommends reapplying every 2 hours - not forgetting commonly missed areas such as ears!