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Sunguarding sport in the hills

Friday 27th May 2022, 1:16pm

A fresh outlook on sun protection

 Contributed by the Melanoma Fund

 Sun protection is something many climbers tend to bypass. Protective clothing can inhibit movement, hats can fly off, sunglasses can dislodge, and sunscreen can be greasy, and when combined with sweat, it can cause a stinging sensation in the eyes. So, it’s not a surprise that many don’t bother, but at what cost?

Prolonged sun exposure will cause early ageing of the skin, wrinkles, age spots, hyperpigmentation and solar keratosis, which looks unsightly. Accumulated exposure can cause many types of non-melanoma skin cancer (NMSC), the most common cancer in the UK, which can be disfiguring. And at worst, melanoma, which can spread to other parts of the body.

When climbing at higher elevation, we are exposed to approximately 25 percent more ultraviolet radiation from the sun when compared to sea level. With rates of skin cancer in the UK up by 140% since the 90’s, forgoing sun protection, whatever your age or skin type or colour, is just too risky.

To create awareness and solutions, the Melanoma Fund created Sunguarding Sport, a free resource containing guidelines, sport specific advice and a toolkit of materials designed specifically for all in sport and outdoor recreation.

The campaign which launches on the 3rd May features guidelines and sport specific advice and is supported by 60+ national governing bodies of sport, including three major mountaineering organisations.  The following tips for climbers have been taken from the campaign:


  1. Sunscreen can have a potential negative impact on items of PPE, so always consider clothing as the first line of defence.
  2. To avoid transferring sunscreen or the dreaded greasy grip, use an applicator, or clean palms with a small towel with alcohol gel.
  3. Remember that the best way to check if sun protection is required is by the UV Index.  If it reads 3 or above then use protection, even in overcast conditions.
  4. Zip-off pants are a great way of protecting your skin during the hours when the sun is at its strongest – whilst allowing you to easily convert them into shorts outside of these hours.
  5. Sunglasses are critical as your eyes are vulnerable to UV radiation and can cause damage to the cornea and even melanoma, especially on snowy terrains and high altitudes.


Michelle Baker, CEO of the Melanoma Fund, said: “Many of us reserve sunscreen for a beach holiday, thinking the sun in the UK is not hot enough to damage our skin. This is obviously not true, and is a perception that needs changing. With the support of the sports industry we aim to generate a fresh approach to tackling this preventable disease, for all who love the great outdoors.”

Visit the Sunguarding Sport website to educate yourself on the facts. Although building habits is never easy, by simply being aware, you can start to make small changes, keeping you up and out there for longer, because if not, why not?

 For further details on all aspects of sun protection in sport, visit www.melanoma-fund.co.uk  

Sun protection guidelines for those participating, spectating, or working in sport or outdoor recreation. The following specific tips and advice have been developed with the help of Mountain Training England and Mountaineering Scotland.

  1. The higher you go, the stronger the impact of UV radiation, even in the UK. Apply a broad-spectrum product with an SPF of 30 or higher, paying special attention to areas on your head that are prone to burning.
  2. Using a sunscreen applicator, or cleaning palms with a small towel with alcohol gel, is a good way to avoid a greasy grip whilst climbing or using walking poles.
  3. Once applied to the skin, reapply sunscreen every 2 hours, or more often if you are prone to excessive sweating.
  4. The sun is strongest between 11am and 3pm depending on the season and your location. If possible, try to avoid being in direct sunlight within these hours.
  5. Sunglasses are critical as your eyes are vulnerable to UV radiation, especially on snowy terrains and high altitudes. If they aren’t UV protected, sun radiation can still cause sun damage to the cornea of the eye. Wear sunglasses throughout the year, as even on sunny days there can also be snow cover and a lot of reflected light.
  6. Helmets provide protection against bumps, falls and rockfall when climbing. They also ensure that the vulnerable areas (your forehead, scalp) are protected from harmful sun radiation. Whilst hiking up the terrain, a hat with a wide brim is ideal for also protecting your neck.
  7. Helmets will leave your ears exposed, so remember to keep your ears protected with sunscreen.
  8. Make sure to keep hydrated by always keeping a bottle or bladder of water on you.
  9. Zip-off pants are a great way of protecting your skin during the hours when the sun is at its strongest – whilst allowing you to easily convert them into shorts outside of these hours.
  10. Don’t forget to carry a lip balm SPF protection to ensure your lips are adequately protected and hydrated.
  11. Make sure to take regular breaks, ideally in a shaded area out of direct sunlight.
  12. When spending long days outdoors, it is important to wear a sun hat.


Understanding that the precautionary principle is usually adopted regarding safety equipment when mountain climbing, we understand that there is a general assumption that a chemical contaminant – like sunscreen – will cause an issue to personal protective equipment (PPE) unless proven otherwise. For this reason, please see below for guidance on how to minimise exposure of the PPE to potential chemical contaminants:

  1. Keep sunscreen containers separate in case of leakage, for example sealing it inside a Ziplock bag when not in use.
  2. Wash or wipe your hands with a towel before handling PPE. Alternatively, opt for a sunscreen applicator, which will be useful for climbing grip.
  3. Wearing clothing that covers your arms and legs can also be helpful with worn PPE, such as harnesses and helmets.
  4. Take out of service and quarantine equipment which becomes accidentally contaminated.
  5. Explain the risks regarding potential contamination and supervise under 18-year-olds to ensure no undue contamination of equipment.