Don’t get burnt by myths on sun safety

Skin cancers occur when the usual controlled system of cell renewal is faulty, and abnormal cells are able to proliferate in an uncontrolled fashion. 

They are classified according to the offending cell type and are broadly categorised as melanomas or non-melanoma skin cancers (which include basal cell carcinomas and squamous cell carcinomas). Together, they account for the largest number of cancers diagnosed in Australia.

The leading cause of skin cancer is exposure to ultra violet (UV) radiation emitted by the sun. It can be deceptive to gauge the level of UV radiation based on how sunny or warm the day is, so it is worthwhile to check the UV index before you head out. Sun protection is recommended when the UV index is rated 3 (moderate) or above. Consider downloading the SunSmart’ Ap, which will give you the UV rating along with the weather forecast.

So how do you then protect yourself? Fortunately the Slip, Slop, Slap’ campaign of the 1980s still rings true, with the additional recommendations of seeking shade and sliding on sunglasses. Indeed, covering as much skin with clothing is the favoured technique. If your clothing doesnt have a specific UV rating, then tighter woven fabrics are preferred. 

While the sunscreen aisle offers a huge range, the key messages are to apply enough of it (a teaspoon is recommended for the face, neck and ears), 20 minutes before exposure, and to reapply every 2 hours (or sooner if youve been swimming or sweating). Opt for a water resistant  SPF30+ or higher.

These preventative measures are particularly important in babies who have thin, delicate skin more susceptible to UV damage. Furthermore, evidence suggests that the more sun exposure during childhood, the greater the risk of skin cancer in later life. In those under the age of 6 months, it is preferred that they are kept out of direct sun when the UV index is 3 or higher, and wear protective clothing and a broad-brimmed hat.

In people at a higher risk of skin cancer – that being over 40 years, an outdoor worker or someone with a history of skin cancer in themselves or a first degree relative – regular self-examination is recommended to look for new suspicious spots or moles, or any change in shape, colour or size of existing pigmented lesions.

And if another reason is needed to give up cigarettes, smoking is also associated with an increased risk of skin cancer, particularly the fast-growing squamous cell carcinomas.

If youre concerned about any lesions or your risk of skin cancer, please seek a review with your GP. Likewise, the medical team can offer strategies to assist in the management of skin conditions like eczema, that can flare up in the warmer months. 

Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 2016. Skin cancer in Australia. Cat. no. CAN 96. Canberra: AIHW .
DermnetNZ (
SunSmart (

Pro Medical SA Dr Emma Zwar, GP

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