Almost all skin cancers are caused by ultraviolet (UV) radiation exposure. By far the largest source of this exposure is the sun.
Australia has the world's worst record with skin cancer. Here's what the Australasian College of Skin Cancer Medicine has to say about sun protection.
What does it mean to protect yourself from the sun?
There are three broad types of ultraviolet radiation. Most ultraviolet is type A (UVA). Some 3% of ultraviolet is the more dangerous type B (UVB). People do not commonly gain exposure to UV type C though arc welding can produce this very dangerous radiation.
UVA rays hit our skin from the sun whenever the sun is out. They get more intense in the middle of the day and are more subdued in the early morning and late afternoon.
Almost all of our exposure to the more harmful UVB radiation is between 11.00 AM and 3:00 PM. This is therefore the time of greatest skin cancer risk.
The time of year also makes a difference. The sun is a lot more dangerous in summer months. The sun is least dangerous between May and September in the southern hemisphere.
So how do we protect ourselves from the sun?
No one has to avoid the sun all together. In fact a small amount of sun is helpful to maintain our vitamin D levels. But in Australia and New Zealand we must reduce our exposure at the times of greatest risk.
How do we protect ourselves?
UV gets blocked by lots of materials. Clothing is a very good UV barrier. Glass is an excellent UV barrier, - even non tinted glass. Shade is very good at stopping UV. Good forms of shade include trees, shade cloth, pergolas, umbrellas and tents. Sunscreen also provides a good UV barrier, though it needs to be a 30+ sunscreen and we must remember to reapply it.
Most of us rarely wear clothes on our face. This is the very reason the face is the commonest site of skin cancers. As such we must pay particular attention to avoid excessive UV exposure to our head and neck. Great clues on improving your sun protection are:
- Wear broad brimmed hats so the shade from the rim better protects your ears, face and neck.
- Wind the car windows up and put on the air conditioner if it is too hot.
- Have shade cloth or a roof over playgrounds and swimming pools and barbeques.
- Plan your outdoor time for earlier in the morning or later in the afternoon.
- Long sleeved shirts are great protection for our forearms.
- Remember to carry a good factor 30 + sunscreen. Apply it 10 - 20 minutes before you go outside, not afterwards.
- Reapply sunscreen every two hours.
- Remember our children. They need to be reminded about sun protection and sunscreens.
The beach poses special skin cancer risks. Remember our beaches kill many more people through skin cancer than they do from shark attacks or drowning. We don’t hear it in the newspaper because they don’t happen suddenly and immediately. Safer beach fun includes:
- Enjoy the beach only before 11:00 AM and after 3:00 PM.
- Rash vests offer excellent UV protection.
- Shade from broad rim hats, beach tents, umbrellas and shelters.
- Apply lots of water resistant sunscreen and reapply when you come out of the water.
- Put the sunscreen on before you leave for the beach, not after you get there and set your gear up.
- Stroll along the beach in the early morning and evening when it is less crowded.
No-one has to miss out on the fun of outdoor activity because of fear of skin cancers. Just enjoy your time outdoor sensibly and safely.
It is not just individuals and families that must take responsibility for sensible sun protection. Organisations need to do likewise. Sometimes organisations in Australia are quite irresponsible when it comes to ensuring sensible sun exposure for our children.
Schools: All should insist on a "no hat,no play" policy throughout the year. UV B is at its worst between 11:00 AM and 3:00 PM. So kids need hats on at recess and lunch time. Some schools have a notorious policy of only insisting on " no hat, no play" in the hottest six months of the year. How can this instill any behavioural education in our young ones? We would never ask children to never eat junk food for six months and then advise them it is Ok for the next six months, and so on. How could a six month on and six month off policy be OK for sensible skin cancer prevention when it would be considered absurd for obesity prevention?
Life saving clubs: Far more Australians die on our beaches from skin cancer than die from drowning or shark attacks or blue ring octopus stings. It is just these people don't make it in the papers because it happens many years later. Life saving clubs are meant to be about beach safety. So how responsible are they when it comes to our biggest single beach danger, the sun? How responsible are they when they are looking after our most vulnerable, our children? Well they run nippers classes. They invariably put them on at the worst time of the day, (11:00 to 3:00). They prevent them wearing broad brimmed hats in favour of historic an unsafe caps with no peak at all! They rarely readily provide appropriate sunscreen. They might have a bottle back in the clubhouse where no one goes and certainly where no child returns mid session to top up. And do any clubs insist on long sleeved rash vests and similar leg cover down to the ankles? None that ACSCM is aware of. Life saving clubs fail in one of their most basic responsibilities, protecting our precious children.
We can do better with sun protection to reduce our terrible skin cancer incidence. Australia has the world's worst record with skin cancer. We need to lift our game, especially when it comes to protecting our children.