Psychologists studying why people take risks said that while Britons knew about the dangers of sunbathing, the belief a tan is attractive and desire to "get their money's worth" of two hot weeks abroad meant that they did not always take the hazards sufficiently seriously.
The situation is not helped by images of tanned models in travel brochures and women's magazines or advertisements such as the Diet Coke advertisement where a man on a building site strips to his waist in the sun in front of admiring women.
Cases of skin cancer are increasing in the UK and it is now the second most common cancer after lung cancer. More than 40,000 people are diagnosed every year and between 1974 and 1989 the number of new cases reported annually increased by more than 90 per cent.
About 2,000 people die from skin cancer each year, of which 1,500 die from the most serious form, malignant melanoma - the incidence of which is increasing faster than any other kind of cancer in Britain.
A husband and wife team from Exeter University carried out research into people's attitudes towards sun exposure and their behaviour. They compared 132 British beachgoers at the Devon resort of Dawlish Warren with 142 Italians at Viareggio, north-west Italy.
While Britons were more prepared to acknowledge the risk of sun-bathing they were almost twice as likely as Italians to say lying on the beach was their ideal holiday.
"The British are making up for lost time and lost sun," said Richard Eiser, professor of psychology at the University of Exeter. "This is a typical northern European experience."
"Considerable variation" was also found in men and women's attitudes to sunbathing, according to a study of 176 British students. Women were more likely than men to acknowledge the health risks, tending to agree with statements such as 'the middle of the day is especially dangerous time to sunbathe' and to say that they would use a sunscreen. However women were also more likely to say they enjoyed sunbathing and felt a tan made them look more healthy.
While many may pay lip service to sun protection, a survey of holidaymakers in Tenerife found that only 7 per cent of Britons were wearing high protection sunscreens (SPF15 or more).
While visitors to the resort reported greater susceptibility to sunburn they were also more likely than the locals to agree with the statement "the more tanned I am the more attractive I am to others" and the more frequently they visited hot resorts the more likely they were to agree.
Those who had also been burnt badly in the past, were worringly less careful about safe sun and taking a very optimistic view of their chances of getting skin cancer.
Dr Christine Eiser, reader in health psychology at Exeter, said that men of all ages were at risk from skin cancer but particularly those who work outside on building sites or in gardens. Children and young people should also be carefully protected because medical evidence showed that a bad bout of sunburn before the age of 15 led to an increased risk of skin cancer.
"There is also the increasing problem of the damage to the ozone layer," said Dr Eiser. "A young person will have a longer period of time exposed to the thinner layer than an old person."
Dr Eiser said that we must not forget that people saw sunbathing as a pleasurable activity. "We need to acknowledge the positive and negative," she said. "It is not enough to provide information. We need to give advice about dealing with others."
According to the Health Education Authority the message is beginning to get through. Only 38 per cent thought having a suntan was important in 1995 compared with 48 per cent five years earlier. Using a sunscreen with a SPF of 7 or higher increased from 33 per cent to 48 per cent between 1990 and 1993.
The psychologists called for a whole change of attitude and said advertisers should shy away from using tanned models and that efforts should be made to make sunscreens cheaper.
Professor Eiser also urged the Government to work with travel companies to promote "healthy holidays".
"I think there is potential for health educators to get alongside holiday companies and start changing attitudes," he said. "At the moment we have 20-year-olds going for disco-burn on the Costa del Sol.
"They're waiting to strip down and show off their bodies. the whole notion of package holidays is getting people on to hot beaches.
"We have to work carefully with the holiday industry to provide different kinds of options - travelling, sightseeing, activities - something generally other than lying there and cooking. It is a niche market but it can be built up and more people encouraged to do it."Reuse content