Answers to your burning questions about sun safety, with expert tips on UV exposure and reducing the risk of skin cancer, plus sunscreen mistakes to avoid.
The right way to protect your skin
Sure, we love the golden glow achieved from baking by the pool, but is it really worth the long-term risks? Wrinkles aside, sun damage can rear its ugly head in the form of skin cancer, including non-melanoma and melanoma. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that between two and three million cases of non-melanoma skin cancer and 132,000 cases of melanoma occur globally each year. The Skin Cancer Foundation (SCF), meanwhile, asserts that the number of people who develop cancer because of tanning is greater than the number of people who develop lung cancer because of smoking. One issue is ozone depletion; when the atmosphere loses more of its protective filter function, it causes more solar UV radiation to reach the Earth’s surface, according to WHO.
So, how can we help protect ourselves? Dermatologist DR LIM KAR SENG sheds some light on the risk factors of skin cancer and shares his top tips on safe sun exposure.
Is there a safe way to get a tan?
Not quite. But limiting one’s sun exposure time, as well as using a good broad-spectrum sunblock, can help prevent skin cancer formation.
Which sunscreens would you recommend?
A broad-spectrum sunblock that is at least SPF30 and above. It’s even more important to ensure that adequate amounts are applied. In individuals with sensitive skin, opt for the “physical sunblocks” (as opposed to “chemical sunblocks”), as this will minimise skin irritation. Most pharmacists will be able to point you to the ones with the least amount of chemical sun protection ingredients. When in doubt, the kids range of sunblock is usually “physical sunblock.”
Is it possible to develop skin cancer if your skin doesn’t burn?
Yes, a skin cancer can most definitely occur even on skin that isn’t exposed to the sun.
What are the key risk factors for skin cancer?
The main factors are sun exposure and ultraviolet light. Ultraviolet radiation is divided into three categories: UVA, UVB and UVC; both UVB and UVC are more carcinogenic and put people at a higher risk of skin cancer. Fortunately, UVC is filtered out by the ozone layer and minimal amounts reach the earth’s surface.
A weak immune system, and medications that suppress the immune system, can also increase the risk of skin cancer. Additionally, family history plays a role, as does skin colour and fairness of complexion, along with the area of the world, or latitude, in which an individual lives.
What are some of the most common types of skin cancer?
Non-melanoma skin cancers are those that arise from the skin, but not from melanocytes – cells that give us our pigment. The most common type is basal cell carcinoma, while other non-melanoma skin cancers include squamous cell carcinoma and Bowen’s disease. Melanoma, a type of a skin cancer derived from melanocytes, is the most aggressive of skin cancers, and may be lethal. Fortunately, melanoma is not as common as other forms of skin cancer.
What preventative measures can be taken to reduce the risk of skin cancer?
I’d suggest avoiding excessive sunlight as much as possible; in fact, I’d limit direct sun exposure to no more than 30 minutes. And, avoid the “danger times”, from 9am until about 5pm when the UV index is the highest.
The most common areas on the body that develop skin cancers are the head and neck region, the back of the hands, the legs and the scalp – particularly in bald or balding individuals; that being said, minimising sun exposure to these areas is important. Broad-spectrum sunblock of at least SPF30 should be used, and, if water activities or excessive sweating are involved, then re-applying after 1.5 hours would be advised.
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#1 You only wear sunscreen at the pool
Limiting your application to the pool is a no-no; it’s important to wear sunblock on a daily basis, no matter where you are or what you’re doing – even on a cloudy day! Tip: If you drive, put extra cream on your exposed arm.
#2 You only apply it once
Many people apply sunscreen just once and consider it done for the day. However, even the sweat-proof, so-called “waterproof” and longlasting sunscreens wear off from perspiring and swimming. It’s best to apply the first batch at least 30 minutes prior to going outside, so it can absorb into your skin. Then, reapply every one to two hours, or immediately after you swim or sweat excessively.
#3 You don’t wear enough
According to SCF, applying one ounce (two tablespoons) of sunscreen will ensure that you’re properly covered for one to two hours.
#4 You forget about your lips
The skin on your lips is thin, which means they’re particularly vulnerable to sun damage. In fact, the lower lip is one of the most common sites for squamous-cell carcinoma to set in, according to the SCF. Always use lip balm with an SPF of 30 or higher, and keep reapplying throughout the day.
#5 You only rely on sunscreen for protection
No sunscreen completely blocks UV radiation, so it’s vital to dress defensively, in addition to wearing sunblock. Tightly woven, loose fitting clothes can provide some protection, while a wide-brim hat can help shield your face and neck.
And, don’t forget sunglasses! It’s important to choose sunglasses labelled with a UVA/UVB rating of 100 percent to get the most protection. Also, according to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the darkness of the lens doesn’t indicate its ability to shield your eyes from UV rays.
Evidence suggests that childhood sun exposure contributes significantly to one’s lifetime risk of skin cancer. Thus, Cancer Council Australia recommends keeping babies out of the sun as much as possible for the first 12 months.