Childhood sunburns are raising the risk of melanoma skin cancer

  • New survey data shows that 66% of UK people aged 16-65 remember getting sunburnt as a child and 65% of those said they burned badly, resulting in blisters, at least once.
  • Latest NHS yearly data shows that 201 people were admitted to hospital for sunburn including 89 children, and 25 babies under the age of one.
  • One blistering sunburn in childhood or adolescence more than doubles your chances of developing melanoma skin cancer later in life.

New survey data released today by the charity Melanoma Focus has found that 66% of people aged 16-65 in the UK remember getting sunburnt as a child. This increased to 77% of those who described their skin tone as ‘Light, pale, white’.[1]

The high number is of concern to the melanoma skin cancer charity which has also shared latest NHS data showing that in England in the year 2022-23 there were 201 admissions to hospital due to sunburn including 89 children, and 25 babies under the age of one.[2]

Of the over 2,000 people surveyed for Melanoma Focus who said they burned in their childhood, 65% said they burned badly (resulting in blisters) at least once.[3]

Research shows that having five or more sunburns doubles your risk of getting melanoma skin cancer and even one blistering sunburn in childhood or adolescence more than doubles your chances of developing melanoma later in life. [4][5]

Further studies indicate that experiencing five or more bad sunburns between ages 15 and 20 increases your melanoma risk by 80%. With the Met Office predicting 2024 to be one of the hottest summers on record, skin cancer experts are concerned about the potential surge in excessive sun exposure. [6][7]

Melanoma is the deadliest form of skin cancer and it’s on the rise in the UK. 1 in 36 men and 1 in 47 women in the UK will now be diagnosed with melanoma skin cancer in their lifetime and melanoma is the most frequent cancer among females aged 20-24 years.[8][9]

Susanna Daniels, CEO of Melanoma Focus, said:

We all need to take care of our skin but it’s especially important to avoid burning in childhood.

“You can do this by seeking shade and using sun hats, sunglasses and sunscreen (SPF 30 or above) to cover up exposed skin, especially in the heat of the day.

“We recommend that, particularly for children, you do not use sun creams that claim to only need one daily application. These types of sun creams have been tested in controlled laboratory conditions where certain factors such as swimming, exercising and sweating have not been taken into account.

“Melanoma skin cancer is extremely serious and, despite it being largely preventable, we’re now in the situation where more people are dying from melanoma in the UK than in Australia. Protecting children from burning is the best way we can reduce their chances of developing melanoma in the future.”

Shiona Ramage, age 53, from London, was diagnosed with melanoma in 2016. She said:

“Sun protection wasn’t taken seriously when I was a child. I spent a lot of time in the sun, including on holidays abroad, where I didn’t cover up in the midday heat of the day and sunscreen factors were very low – sometimes only SPF 3 to 5.

“I remember getting some bad sunburns as a teenager and spent summers working outdoors in the south of France as a student. We know so much more about skin cancer risks now, and, sadly, I’ve experienced the trauma of living with stage 4 melanoma. It’s really important that we protect children from getting sunburn and educate them on sun protection, and the fact that sun damage is cumulative, so they can avoid skin cancer in later life.”

Professor Catherine Harwood, Consultant Dermatologist and Melanoma Focus Trustee said:

“Damage from UV exposure increases your risk of skin cancer over time and sunburns during childhood or adolescence will increase the odds of developing melanoma later in life.

“Newborn babies have very delicate skin and they should be kept out of direct sunlight until they are at least six months old. Older babies and children should ideally wear protective clothing and stay in the shade during the heat of the day and a high factor, broad spectrum sunscreen should be applied to all exposed skin 30 minutes before sun exposure and reapplied every two hours or after an activity that could remove sun cream, such as swimming.”

Melanoma Focus has joined with charities, cross-party politicians and medical professionals to call for the removal of VAT on factor 30+ sunscreen to make it more affordable and reduce cases of melanoma skin cancer.

86% of melanomas are preventable by protecting your skin from harmful rays. Visit Melanoma Focus for advice about sunscreens. [10]

ENDS

[1] Q14: When asked Did you ever get sunburned as a child or teenager? 65.90% of all respondents said ‘Yes’. This increased to 76.66% of people who described their skin tone as Type 1 or ‘Light, pale, white’.

[2] NHS Hospital Admitted Patient Care Activity, 2022-23: https://digital.nhs.uk/data-and-information/publications/statistical/hospital-admitted-patient-care-activity/2022-23. To view the sunburn data visit the spreadsheet Hospital Admitted Patient Care Activity, 2022-23:Diagnosis and the tab named Primary Diagnosis-3-charater. Row 858/L55. You can also view the extracted data for sunburn admissions here.

[3] Q15: For those who said they burned as a child or teenager, when asked How many times, if any, did you ever burn badly (i.e. resulting in blisters)? 65.17% said more than once and only 18.33% said ‘never’.

[4] Pfahlberg A, Kölmel KF, Gefeller O. Timing of excessive ultraviolet radiation and melanoma.. Br J Dermatol 2001; 144:3:471-475.https://www.skincancer.org/skin-cancer-information/skin-cancer-facts/

[5] https://www.skincancer.org/risk-factors/sunburn/

[6] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4151553/

[7] https://www.metoffice.gov.uk/about-us/news-and-media/media-centre/weather-and-climate-news/2023/2024-first-chance-of-year-above-1.5-c-say-climate-scientists

[8] Melanoma skin cancer is becoming more common in the UK with around 16,700 new cases every year (46 every day): https://www.cancerresearchuk.org/health-professional/cancer-statistics/statistics-by-cancer-type/melanoma-skin-cancer

[9 ]https://digital.nhs.uk/ndrs/data/data-outputs/ctya-uk-cancer-statistics-report-2021/cancer-incidence

[10] https://www.cancerresearchuk.org/health-professional/cancer-statistics/statistics-by-cancer-type/melanoma-skin-cancer

Notes to editors:

  • The research was conducted by Censuswide with 2,003 nationally representative adults (16-65) between 15.03.2024 – 20.03.2024. Data has been weighted to nationally representative proportions on age, gender, region and ethnicity using ONS and Census data. Censuswide abide by and employ members of the Market Research Society which is based on the ESOMAR principles and are members of The British Polling Council.
  • View the full data tables here.

About Melanoma Focus:

  • Melanoma Focus is a national charity dedicated to providing a comprehensive and authoritative source of information for public and professionals alike, as well as supporting education and promoting research about melanoma.
  • Melanoma Focus runs a free and confidential helpline at 0808 801 0777
  • New survey data shows that 66% of UK people aged 16-65 remember getting sunburnt as a child and 65% of those said they burned badly, resulting in blisters, at least once.
  • Latest NHS yearly data shows that 201 people were admitted to hospital for sunburn including 89 children, and 25 babies under the age of one.
  • One blistering sunburn in childhood or adolescence more than doubles your chances of developing melanoma skin cancer later in life.