Did you know that sunburn can double your risk of malignant melanoma, the most dangerous type of skin cancer? Vitality Health GP Dr Dawn Richards explains how to protect yourself from sun damage this season…
Seek shade and cover up
That’s right – the recent guidelines from the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), the body that provides guidance for health care, maintain there is no safe way to sunbathe. The short, intense bursts of UV rays British people get from a sun-soaked summer holiday are linked with a higher risk of melanoma. This is compared to the everyday, cumulative exposure people tend to have when they live in a hot country.
You should actively avoid the sun at the hottest times of the day. This means staying indoors or in the shade between 11am and 3pm, as this is when the sun is at its strongest. If you’re out and about at any time and may be exposed to intermittent sun, wear protective clothing. This could include long sleeves, a sun hat and sunglasses, as well as sunscreen. Covering up and staying in the shade is especially important for children, as their skin is more delicate and susceptible to sun damage.
Pick the right factor
Abroad, and on sunny days in the UK, a minimum of SPF15 will protect you from burning. This is caused by UVB radiation, which is linked with skin cancer. You can go for a higher factor to be even safer, but it’s not all about the SPF. You should also look for a brand with a five-star UVA rating – the rays that are linked with ageing. Sunscreens with both UVA and UVB protection are called broad-spectrum sunscreens. Even with sunscreen, you still shouldn’t sunbathe – it should just be used to give you extra protection when you’re out and about. If you have dark skin, you should still wear SPF15 sunscreen if you’re out for any length of time in strong sunshine.
Most of us make the mistake of skimping on sunscreen. You need approximately one teaspoon’s worth of sunscreen per limb. Most bottles are only 200ml, so your sunscreen will only last a few days if applied and re-applied properly. Remember to apply sunscreen to the back of your neck, ears, the tops of your shoulders and the back of your arms and legs – lots of people forget these areas as you can’t see them easily. You should reapply every two hours, and more frequently if you’ve been sweating heavily or swimming. Even if your sunscreen is water-resistant, you’re likely to rub it off when you towel-dry yourself.
Get enough vitamin D
Our bodies manufacture vitamin D from several sources, and sufficient levels are vital for healthy bones. One of the main ways to get enough of this health-boosting substance is from the sun, and it’s true that covering up can lower your body’s ability to make it. But you really don’t need much sunshine to make vitamin D.
Some researchers suggest that being exposed to the sun without wearing sunscreen for 10 to 15 minutes a day at least twice a week is enough, although it depends on your skin – darker skin will need longer, very fair skin less. To keep yourself safe, you can always cover up more and take a vitamin D supplement to boost your levels.
Check your moles for sun damage
Monitor your skin every few months for new moles or any changes to existing ones, as these may be signs of malignant melanoma, the least common but most deadly form of skin cancer. Your risk also increases every time you burn.
Melanomas usually appear on the legs, back, arms or face, although they can crop up anywhere. So what exactly are you looking for? The ABCDE method can help you remember:
A – Asymmetry: One side of a melanoma tends to look different
B- Border irregularity: Irregular, ragged or blurred edges
C- Colour change: The colour of the mole isn’t the same all over, and includes various shades of brown, black and even pink, red and white.
D – Diameter: Harmless moles are usually no bigger than the width of a pencil
E – Elevated (raised) or enlarged: Swollen or crusty moles can be suspicious
A new mole, particularly when you’re an adult, can also be suspicious. If you notice any of these signs, you need to see your GP or the Vitality GP. The Vitality GP can arrange for you to be sent a Skin Analytics kit, which you can use yourself at home. As with all forms of cancer, the earlier skin cancer is detected, the more effective treatment is likely to be. Typically, if there’s any suspicion of skin cancer, the mole will be removed and examined.
Vitality member Laura Brogden tells us how she received help for a suspicious looking mole…
“A while back I noticed a darkening of an area of skin above my eyebrow, which worsened over the course of a few days. I was quite concerned – I’d used sunbeds when I was younger, so skin cancer did cross my mind. I couldn’t get an appointment with my local GP, so I decided to give the Vitality GP a go and I was given an appointment the next day. The consultation worked well over a videocall and then a Skin Analytics kit was sent out to me.
“With help from my husband, I took a few high-definition photos of the area and uploaded them. I had a confirmation back almost immediately and a follow-up Vitality GP appointment the next day. The GP suggested, having looked at the pictures, that I see a specialist. The same day, I was contacted directly by Alliance Surgical and got an appointment with a consultant for the following Tuesday at a nearby hospital.
“It was just seven days between me booking the first Vitality GP appointment and my consultation with the skin specialist. I was really concerned, so picking any problems up as soon as possible was a big priority. Fortunately, the growth was nothing malignant and was easily removed, but I am very grateful for the speed and care taken with my treatment. The specialist I saw was very knowledgeable and gave me lots of guidance about signs to look out for in the future.”