A worried parent is a good parent, or so we feel. And modern people worry massively about sunshine. Some pretty massive controversies about skin cancer have been knocking about in the public domain.

Studies showing sunscreen causing cancer. 

Studies showing that lack of sun exposure causes more cancer than over-exposure does.

Studies showing that the higher the SPF, the less liberally it’s applied, so that the screening effect is actually lower than in lower factor creams.

So a minefield, then.

Amongst the advocates of sunscreen there’s been great concern about a 2009 settlement in the US between a group of skin cancer victims and sunscreen manufacturers. The lawsuit claimed that the manufacturers “are making systematically fraudulent, deliberately misleading claims on their labels and websites and in their advertising, exaggerating the ability of sunscreens to protect against the sun and reduce the risk of cancer and other skin ailments”.

The sunscreen manufacturers settled out of court, so does that leave the charge unanswered?

Those who claim that sunscreen actually causes the most deadly of the skin cancers (malignant melanoma if you’re interested) argue that some creams mislead the public by protecting against UV-B rays but not UV-A rays, leaving us all out in the sun for far too long. Some say the creams suppress our natural production of melanin, which protects us through tanning. Others argue the creams are in themselves carcinogenic.

That’s enough concern for me to strike SPF creams off my shopping list, at least for a UK holiday. Two simple measures to minimise the use of creams:

One of them is to help your kids build a tan slowly. I find a great way to ensure light clothing is viable on a cool but sunny northern European spring day is stocking up on base layers – a thin, comfortable top quality wool or thermal t-shirt over a pair of shorts allows kids to soak up some rays in less clothing.

Secondly, it’s up to you to create play in the shade on hot, sunny days. You’re in charge – you put the Lego blanket or the tub of ice cream under the tree. And maybe a forest walk to a lake is a better day trip than a beach.

This more laborious route – a gradual build-up of a tan – does another job, far more important than just protecting against skin cancer:

“The evidence linking major cancers, including breast, prostate, pancreas and colon to UVB light under-exposure is actually rather stronger than is the evidence linking melanoma to UVB over-exposure”, according to Dr Richard Quinton and colleagues writing in the British Medical Journal.

So there you go. A new thing to worry about!

Summaries of sunscreen studies in the British Medical Journal: http://www.bmj.com/search/sunscreen