Here in Western Australia, we’re blessed with some of the most beautiful weather in the world. But spending time in the sunshine without the proper protection can be dangerous to our health. So we’ve got some handy info on how you can be SunSmart at the beach.
What is skin cancer?
Skin cancer is the uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells in the skin, usually caused by skin cell damage. Skin cancer can either affect only the skin’s top layer or can spread deeply into the skin and to other parts of the body.
Types of skin cancer
There are three main types of skin cancer:
- Basal cell carcinoma – is the most common form of skin cancer. It can grow deep into the skin and damage nearby tissue, making it more difficult to treat.
- Squamous cell carcinoma – makes up on third of all skin cancers and has the potential to spread to other parts of the body.
- Melanoma – is the least common type of skin cancer, but it is the most serious. Left untreated, a melanoma can spread deeper into the skin where cancer cells can escape and be carried in lymph vessels or blood vessels to other parts of the body.
The sun and tanning
Exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun and other sources, such as solariums, is the major cause of skin cancer. Australia has some of the highest UV levels in the world – in fact, the UV radiation in Australia is strong enough to cause sunburn in just 10 minutes.
Each time your unprotected skin is exposed to UV radiation, it changes the structure of the DNA in the skin cells. Overexposure to UV radiation permanently damages the skin and the damage gets worse with each exposure to UV radiation.
A tan is when the skin cells in the epidermis (the top layer of the skin) produce a pigment called melanin, which gives skin its colour. When skin is exposed to UV radiation more melanin is produced, causing the skin to darken or ‘tan’.
Having a tan is a sign that the skin has been overexposed to UV radiation and damage has occurred, putting you at an increased risk of developing skin cancer. Even a light tan shows that the skin has been damaged. Too much UV radiation also makes you look old before your time – making your skin look saggy, wrinkly and leathery. Some people think it’s safe to tan, as long as they don’t burn. This is not true – there is no such thing as a healthy or safe tan.
The sun’s UV radiation is the major cause of skin cancer, but is also the best source of Vitamin D. Too much exposure to UV radiation can cause sunburn, skin damage and skin cancer; however too little UV exposure can lead to vitamin D deficiency. So how do you protect yourself from skin cancer but also get enough vitamin D? Watch the UV index – it’s safe to get sun when the UV index is under 3.
The UV Index is an international standard scale developed by the World Health Organization which measures the amount of UV radiation reaching the Earth’s surface. Put simply, the UV Index measures the sun’s UV intensity and tells you when it is safe to be in the sun unprotected. Sun protection is generally not needed when the UV Index is under 3.
How to protect yourself
Two in three Australians diagnosed with some form of skin cancer before the age of 70. You can protect yourself in the following ways:
- SLIP on some clothing – Wear clothes that cover your skin as much as possible. Sun protective fabric with an Ultraviolet Protection Factor (UPF) rating of 50+ blocks more than 97.5% of UVA and UVB radiation and provides the highest level of protection.
- SLOP on sunscreen – Slop on SPF30 or higher sunscreen. Make sure it is broad spectrum and water resistant. Apply over all areas of exposed skin 20 minutes before sun exposure and reapply every two hours or more regularly if you have been swimming or sweating.
- SLAP on a hat – Choose a hat with a brim to provide protection for your face, back of the neck, eyes and ears – the most common areas affected by skin cancer. Caps are not SunSmart, as they do not keep enough sun off your head.
- SLIDE on some sunglasses – Long-term exposure to UV radiation can cause cataracts and cancers of the eye and surrounding skin. Always wear sunglasses that meet the Australian Standard.
- SEEK some shade – The sun’s UV rays are normally strongest in the middle of the day. Aim to seek shade whenever the UV index is 3 or higher. If you can’t stay in the shade, make sure your skin is protected in other ways.