Why our sun protection habit has to change

Over the last 40 years, one cancer has risen faster in the UK than any other, increasing more than fivefold since the mid-1970s. This cancer is melanoma, the most deadly form of skin cancer, and on a global scale one person dies each hour from it; a figure that is rising steadily. Although it occurs for several reasons, the most preventable cause is over exposure to the sun. The main trigger is sunburn, with just one incidence in childhood or adolescence tripling the risk of developing melanoma.  
With hard hitting statistics like these you would think that the provision of sun protection would be more of an integrated safeguarding issue, especially for those who work outdoors with kids for prolonged periods during the summer months. Sadly though it isn’t, and although many are aware of the dangers of excessive sun exposure, this has yet to translate into implementing a culture of sun protection in the UK.

Habits by Outdoor Activity Workers
A recent national sun protection survey by the Myfanwy Townsend Melanoma Research Fund, investigating sun protection habits in the UK, reveals that a quarter of those who work outdoors with children admit to a child having sunburn whilst in their care, and a worrying 40 per cent say children still turn up to outdoor sessions without any sun protection whatsoever. Over 60 per cent of those surveyed also admitted to hearing young children discussing ‘getting a tan’.

Move on a generation and the message is obviously still not sticking. A recent survey by the Teenage Cancer Trust revealed that over a third of teenagers (38 per cent) don’t use sun protection in the UK because they don’t believe the UK sun is strong enough to do damage, and a fifth (18 per cent) admitted to deliberately burning in order to ‘kick start a tan’.  A staggering 71 per cent of those asked said that being bronzed rated as the most attractive look.
Even if you don’t actively sunbathe, how do your sun protection habits rate when working outdoors with children for prolonged periods in summer? There are some important questions to consider; Do you work with parents to ensure kids arrive sun protected? Do you have a sun policy which is adhered to? Do you lead by example and protect yourself in front of kids? Do you wear protective clothing and seek shade during the hottest part of the day? Do you ensure kids reapply SPF30 sunscreen after lunch breaks? Have you or has a child in your care suffered sunburn?

The burning issue of tanning
If you feel you could do better, you are not alone, and may question why this is still such a contentious issue. One theory is that we are programmed to believe that sun protection is something we only use on holiday and that the sun in the UK is not hot enough to do damage to our skin.
Half the adult population of the UK say they feel healthier with a tan, according to a recent survey. However, although many admit that they also feel more attractive, many do not realise that any time your skin changes colour – whether it’s a tan or a burn – it’s an indication of damage. That damage, which is cumulative, increases your risk of melanoma as well as other types of skin cancer and also leads to premature ageing of the skin.
Sunscreen advertising typically depicts beaches, sand and sea and products are generally included with ‘holiday’ items. The fact is that although the sun in the UK may not always be as intense or constant, it can be just as damaging as it is in warmer climes.
Even if we do understand the dangers, with all good intentions, many of us simply forget, and this can be to do with habits forged in childhood. We don’t forget to brush our teeth twice a day to avoid decay, we wash our hands before meals to avoid germs, we ‘clunk click every trip’ to avoid being battered in a crash, we ensure kids wear helmets when riding bikes, but why don’t we remember to ‘slip slap slop’?
The answer therefore lies in behavioural change, which is never an easy nut to crack. However the good news is that habits can be forged in a relatively short time.
Dr Gardner, senior lecturer in psychology and habit formation specialist, said: “Creating a well-developed routine is the secret to any healthy habit. My research has shown that it can take just two weeks for a habit to become second nature, and applying this to a personal sun protection routine can help those who work with kids to think automatically of using this habit to protect the children in their care.”

The Two Week Challenge
To put this theory into action, Dr Gardner has worked with the creators of the Outdoor Kids Sun Safety Code to devise ‘The Two Week Challenge’. Designed to inspire positive action by following a schedule of actions for two weeks, the challenge will help adults create good habits and pass these down to a younger generation.
Harry Townsend, the founder of the Myfanwy Townsend Melanoma Research Fund, said: “We all like to get outdoors and feel the warm sun on our faces, however we must all look at sun protection carefully. Melanoma is a terrible disease: however by simply spending a couple of minutes applying sunscreen a couple of times a day and remembering to action a few simple measures, you can enjoy the sun without harm.”

Sunscreen in sport
Although clothing is ideally the first line of defence against the sun, using an SPF30 sunscreen is important for children who play sport, especially as they wear fewer clothes and don’t tend to wear sunglasses or hats when outdoors for prolonged periods. However, to be at all effective it needs to be generously applied and reapplied during the day.

If there is concern about who applies sunscreen to children, the Outdoor Kids Sun Safety Code recommends that adults and parents lead by example, applying it to their own skin, showing children both how do it and where not to miss. This also sends out positive messages that everyone needs to protect their skin.
Casey Stoney, WSL Arsenal and England Women’s Football Captain and Outdoor Kids Sun Safety Code Ambassador said: “I spend a lot of time outdoors and admit in the past, I didn’t use sun protection much.However, as a mum I have become much more aware of the need to protect my child’s skin and in turn my own. Kids look up to their coaches and teachers so leading by example is vital. Sign up to the Outdoor Kids Sun Safety Code and get ‘OK accredited’, it just makes sense. Get out there, have fun but stay safe in the sun.”
A fun but educational film produced by the Outdoor Kids Sun Safety Code called ‘Blow the Whistle on Sunburn!’ has been launched to encourage kids to remember sun protection when they ‘gear up for action’ this summer. This has been embedded in a sun protection presentation which is perfect for school assemblies.

Further Information