Commonly life and time spent in the outdoors inevitably includes taking risks. We all spend a lot of time ensuring we’re safe by learning the right skills and packing the right kit but what can be easily overlooked and under-estimated are the hazards and dangers of unprotected exposure to the sun.

Working year round in the outdoors means I am particularly susceptible to damage caused by the sun’s rays. As rugged as one can look with a leathered tan, vanity falls to common sense every time when the stakes are actually life threatening. Here’s a guide to what to look out for, what to do to protect yourself and what you can do about it should (or when) you succumb to the power of solar radiation.

Everyone knows of sunburn but often neglected and forgotten about are skin cancer, snow-blindness, and as mentioned before the loss of skin elasticity (leathering and wrinkling of the skin).

GR221 Dry Stone Way, Majorca

What is a tan?

No one can deny a sun tan looks good. Ironically it even looks healthy. The truth is that it is actually a sign that the skin is already damaged and is trying to protect itself by making more melanin to try to absorb further UV radiation. Sunburn is an excessive exposure to Ultraviolet B (UVB) and can cause redness and soreness of the skin and can commonly be associated with a fever, chills or headache. Additionally it can double the chance of getting skin cancer. Sunburn of the lips leads to chapped, painful blistered lips.

Treating sun burn should be a combination of keeping the skin cool (and in the shade), moisturising it, and keeping yourself topped up with fluids to prevent further dehydration. Painkillers (paracetamol or ibuprofen) can be taken in extreme cases.

What is skin cancer?

Skin cancer (basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and melanoma) presents itself as a tumour, usually as an irregularly shaped mole that may contain several different shades of brown and black. It is caused by repeated sun exposure over a period of many years. At particular risk are mountaineers, skiers, snow-boarders, paddlers, and lifeguards … or anyone that happens to spend a lot of time outdoors. (Sound familiar?)

Remember to regularly check your skin for any abnormalities or for existing moles that are getting bigger – and if in doubt see you must see your GP.

What is snow blindness?

How many of us have started the day with an alpine start – in the early hours before dawn. Utterly miserable is the moment that you have to drag yourself from a warm pit, but also this moment is laden with excitement and apprehension ready for an excellent day ahead. It is also a key moment to forget to pack your sun-glasses! The intensity of the day’s light serves as the only possible warning that this debilitating ailment is to come. Snow-blindness usually kicks in 8 to 12 hours later with the eyes feeling like they’ve been packed with sand and will be accompanied by a headache that is the mother of all hangovers. Potentially a severe case can lead to ulceration of the cornea and permanently damage your eye.

If you need to treat a casualty who has snow blindness a moistened and cool compress to the eyes (in a darkened environment) combined with painkillers (paracetamol and ibuprofen) may give some relief.

Top sun safety tips

Clothing can be an excellent barrier to the harmful rays of the sun but ideally it needs to be light coloured and tightly woven. If you hold it up to the light and you can see images through it, it may be equal to a suncream of SPF (sun protection factor) less than 15. If the light gets through it, but no images can be made out think of it as being equal to an SPF of 15 to 50. Only if it completely blocks out the light will it have an SPF greater than 50.

Protective creams or lotions are notorious for over estimating their protective rating. While price won’t be a guide better known brands might be more trustworthy. Only by using a high factor cream and by frequent application can you be sure that it will be doing any good. Sun-cream designed specifically with sport in mind that will continue to do its job even with sweat pouring is best of all for me. And never underestimate the importance of lip salve to protect your lips.

Sunglasses come in five categories from 0 to 4. For the outdoor enthusiast they need to be at least 3 and for extended time spent on water, at the beach or on a glacier etc category 4 is recommended (though not to be used when driving). Glacier goggles offer protection from reflected light and make a huge difference in such conditions. Again – beware of the rip offs – especially from a street market offering designer brands at ridiculously cheap prices. Ultimately this will be a false economy!

If you remember nothing else, remember this

  • Protect the skin with clothing, wide-brimmed hat and wear sunglasses
  • Seek shade (if possible) between 11am and 3pm when the sunlight is strongest
  • Use a high protection sunscreen of at least SPF 30 – and make sure it is generously and frequently applied

Further training for the outdoors

Will4Adventure are specialists in outdoor first aid running regular courses every month.