Saving your skin this summer

Simply slipping on a singlet and slopping on some sunscreen before hitting the beach, sporting field or backyard isn't enough, experts say.

Sunscreen should be the last line of defence against the hot summer sun, not the first.

"Sunscreen ... is more effective when it is combined with other sun protection strategies," says Professor Michael Kimlin, program head of the Australian sun and health research laboratory at the Queensland University of Technology.

"The World Health Organisation recommends sunscreen as a last line of defence."

Australia's clear skies and proximity to the equator means that our predominantly pale population cop a roasting all year round.

"Levels of UV exposure in Australia are extraordinarily high, in fact, the summertime UV levels that are recorded in the Netherlands are equivalent to the wintertime UV levels we record in Brisbane," says Kimlin.

Australia's clean air also contributes to our UV exposure with very little pollution to filter the suns' rays.

"We should be looking at reducing our time outside at peak UV times between 10am and 3pm and using protective clothing and shade where possible," Kimlin says.

For those worried about getting their vitamin D dose, slopping on the sunscreen won't stop you getting it.

While some studies have found that sunscreen stops the body producing vitamin D, a recent Australian study found this wasn't the case.

"People who used sunscreen the most had the highest vitamin D levels of the people we tested in Brisbane," Kimlin says.

This is because, unlike in lab tests, people don't apply sunscreen to every inch of their body so are still able to absorb the vitamin.

"Vitamin D is not reduced through the use of sunscreen, what we found was that it might even be enhanced because people are actually spending time in the outdoors," says Kimlin.

Even when using sunscreens with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30+ most people are only getting the protection of SPF 15 + sunscreens, says Gavin Greenoak, the scientific director of the Australian photobiology testing facility Sydney University.

"There are many studies showing that the amount of sunscreen people use is a half or a third of the amount we use in laboratories," says Greenoak.

"So if a person applies SPF 30+ but only uses half the amount, then they are only getting around SPF 15+ protection," he said.

UV radiation is the biggest risk factor for skin cancer in Australia with 98-99 per cent of skin cancers related to excessive sunlight exposure, Kimlin says.

And people who use sunscreen are at lower risk of certain types of non-melanoma cancer and sunspots, Kimlin says.

Skin cancer facts

What is skin cancer?

Skin cancer occurs when skin cells are damaged from over exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun.

More than 200,000 Australians are treated for skin cancer each year.

Fair-skinned Aussies are in the highest risk but those with olive complexions are not immune to the problem.

A tan is a sign that the skin is getting UV radiation damage. It is not a sign of good health, rather that skin cells are in trauma.

The Australasian College of Dermatologists says exposure to sunlight during childhood and teenage years is a major factor in causing skin cancers.

There are three main types of skin cancer.


Melanoma is the most dangerous form of skin cancer.

Australia and New Zealand have the world's highest incidence of melanoma.

In summer, the earth's orbit brings Australia closer to the sun, resulting in an additional 7 per cent solar UV intensity.

Increased UV levels are also a result of the hole in the ozone layer.

There are more than 10,300 cases diagnosed each year in Australia.

In 2006, there were 1250 deaths from melanoma.

Non-melanoma skin cancers

There were an estimated 430,000 new cases non-melanoma skin cancers diagnosed in Australia in 2008.

In 2006, there were 410 reported deaths from non-melanoma skin cancers.

The two types of non-melanoma skin cancers are:

Basal Cell Carcinoma (BCC)

BCC is the most common type of skin cancer with an estimated

296,000 cases in 2008.

It grows from cells in the lower part of the upper layer of the skin.

This type of skin cancer appears on the face, head, neck and can occur in difficult to treat areas such as near the eye and the lower legs.

BCCs are more easily and successfully treated in their early stages.

Squamous Cell Carcinoma (SCC)

The second most common form of skin cancer is the SCC and tend to grow much faster than BCCs.

There were an estimated 138,000 SCC cases in 2008.

They form a scaly, quick growing pink lump or wart-like growth.

They most commonly occur on areas exposed to a lot of sunlight such as the face, ears, bald scalps, lips and backs of the hands.

People who have had organ transplants, or medications to suppress their immune system, are at higher risk of developing SCCs.

What to look out for?

The sooner a skin cancer is identified and treated, the better.

Early detection means it's possible to avoid surgery, scars and disfigurement or even death.

People should watch out for any crusty, non-healing sores, small lumps that are red, pale or pearly in colour.

They should also look for new spots, freckles or any moles changing in colour, thickness or shape over a period of weeks to months, especially those dark brown to black, red or blue-black in colour.

People should see their doctor or a skin cancer clinic for a yearly skin check.

Risk factors:

Risk factors include increased numbers of unusual moles, a family history of skin cancer, fair skin, a tendency to burn rather than tan, freckles, light eye colour, light or red hair colour, previous melanoma or non-melanoma skin cancers.

How are skin cancers treated?

Skin cancers are always removed. In cases of advanced skin cancers surrounding tissue is removed to make sure that all of the cancerous cells have been taken out.

Skin cancers can be treated with ointments, radiation therapy and surgery (usually under a local anaesthetic), cryotherapy (using liquid nitrogen to rapidly freeze the cancer off), curettage (scraping) or cautery (burning).

How to convince teenagers that sun protection is important?

Parents should focus on the health and beauty effects of sun exposure such as premature ageing, wrinkles, blotches, freckles or burnt, peeling skin.

Another tip for parents is to allow teenagers to choose sun protection clothing and sunglasses that they will be happy to wear.

Some surf clothing companies produce funky bucket hats and wraparound sunglasses that will get the thumbs up.

*Sources: Cancer Council of Australia, Better Health Channel, Australasian College of Dermatologists.

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