Sunbathers kept in the dark over `safe-sun' advice

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Consumers are confused by information on sunscreen labels and are misunderstanding vital advice about how long they can stay in the sun, according to a new report.

Only one in five buyers understands what a cream's Sun Protection Factor (SPF) means, and more than half want more information on how to use sun screens, according to a Health Education Authority (HEA) survey carried out by Mori.

Incidences 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.

Sunscreens have been bought or used over the past two to three years by 57 per cent of those polled. But there are significant differences between age groups and sex.

Nearly 65 per cent of women bought or used the lotions compared to 49 per cent of men. The higher socio-economic groups are more likely to use sunscreens, and 63 per cent of 15- to 34-year-olds used them compared with 39 per cent of those aged 55 or over.

The main reason given for using sunscreens was to prevent burning or peeling, although over half also mentioned that they wanted to protect themselves against skin cancer.

The HEA said this finding was "encouraging", suggesting that people are beginning to think of sunscreens as health products rather than as cosmetic aids. But understanding of labelling and technical terms is slight. Almost half of those quizzed thought sun-screen labelling was "too technical and too confusing" and more than half wanted more information.

Seventy per cent of keen sunbathers said they relied on their cream's SPF rating. However only 20 per cent of those polled understood what it meant.

The SPF is the length of time you can spend in the sun without burning, by taking into account your resistance to the sun's rays. For example, if you normally burn after half an hour's sunbathing, using a lotion with an SPF of 20 would enable you to lie in the sun for that half- hour, multiplied by 20; a total of 10 hours before burning.

The HEA called for manufacturers to adopt a clearer, simpler form of labelling, and for all containers to contain advice which makes clear that sunscreens by themselves cannot entirely protect against sun damage. Explanations of "safe- sun" behaviour should be included, it said, and advised other means of protection such as avoiding the midday sun and wearing hats and loose-fitting clothing. The authority also wants manufacturers to consider using a sell-by date on sunscreen packaging, and advising how many whole-body applications the pack contains.

A spokesman for the Cosmetic, Toiletries and Perfumery Association stressed that many sun-screen manufacturers have promoted safe-sun behaviour for several years. He added: "Sunscreens are an important part of a total health package aimed at the avoidance of over-exposure to the sun."

Last month two leading cancer charities, the Cancer Research Campaign and the Imperial Cancer Research Fund launched their own sunscreens, with profits being ploughed back to research into the treatment of the disease.