John Hearne: Dying for a tan?
It's official. There's no such thing as a healthy tan. Unless it comes out of a bottle, tanned skin is damaged skin. What's more, getting sunburned in childhood or adolescence significantly increases the risk of getting cancer in later life.
The Irish Cancer Society has just launched its Sun Smart Campaign, which aims to promote safe ways of enjoying the sun this year -- assuming it shows up in the first place. Over in America, designer Marc Jacobs has been advocating something similar with his Skin Cancer Awareness campaign, where top celebs and leading models such as Marisa Miller and Irina Shayk have been promoting the need for care in the sun.
Traditionally, we Irish have always had a cavalier attitude to the sun. Getting sunburned was a central feature of the Irish summer and, in any case, we all believed that Irish sun couldn't really do us any damage. But we're now having to face the consequences of this attitude.
Norma Cronin, of the Irish Cancer Society, says that skin cancer is the most common form of the disease in Ireland. "Our key message is never allow the skin to burn," she explains.
More than 8,100 new cases of skin cancer were diagnosed in 2009, according to the National Cancer Registry Ireland (NCRI). Of these, 721 people were diagnosed with the more serious form of the disease, melanoma. This year, too, the Cancer Society is highlighting the dangers to young people of overexposure to the sun. Between 2005 and 2009 a total of 3,040 new skin cancer cases were diagnosed in the 15 to 44 age group -- 820 of those were melanoma.
"Sun exposure is the main risk for skin cancer," says Cronin, "so it's important to always protect your skin at home and abroad whether on the beach, playing sports, gardening or working outdoors. And never get sunburnt. Parents need to follow SunSmart Code with their children as worryingly, most UV damage is caused during childhood and adolescence."
The rise of skin cancer among young people is a problem in the UK, too. Caroline Cerny, Cancer Research UK's SunSmart campaign manager says that it's a worrying trend, especially since cancer is typically a disease that affects older people. "With summer approaching after such a harsh winter, everyone is looking forward to enjoying some sunshine," she says. "But it's more important than ever to be aware of the dangers of getting sunburnt."
Sunscreen, Norma Cronin points out, is only one part of your sun-defence strategy. It's a mistake to rely on it exclusively. "We recommend sunscreen but we recommend it in combination with our SunSmart code. It's about slip, slap, slop.
"First, slip on a T-shirt with a collar. Ideally the clothes should be made of a close-weave material. Next, slap on a hat. It's important that it's wide-brimmed or have a hat flap for children so it covers the back of the neck and the ears," explains Norma.
Slopping on sunscreen is the third step. Always make sure that the sunscreen protects you from both types of UV rays -- UVA and UVB. It's got to have the UVA logo, while the SPF, or sun protection factor, is all about UVB. While the Cancer Society recommends a product with an SPF of 15 or more, the Drugs and Therapeutics Bulletin (DTB) in the UK has warned that 15 is too low. They say that manufacturer's test conditions aren't realistic, and suggest factor 30 is more appropriate.
The DTB also recommend that when you apply sunscreen, pay particular attention to vulnerable areas such as the nose, shoulders, tops of feet and back of neck. And don't rub it in, spread it evenly.
Then there's the question of vitamin D. Sunlight is a key source of vitamin D, which is essential for bone health. There has been some divergence of opinion arising out of the possible conflict between boosting your vitamin D levels and staying safe in the sun.
"It's a complex issue," says Norma Cronin. "But a balance needs to be struck to attain adequate levels of vitamin D without increasing the risk of skin cancer.
"We recommend that people follow the SunSmart code and remember that diet is also a big factor in vitamin D. If anyone has concerns about it, they should discuss it with their GP."
The DTB, however, says explicitly that if you are fair skinned, you should go without sunscreen for 15 minutes two to three times a week to ensure adequate supplies of vitamin D. Those with darker skins need longer.
Remember, too, that skin cancers are very treatable, if they're caught early. Be aware of what's happening with your skin.
The Irish Cancer Society says that the key changes to watch for include a new sore or growth that doesn't heal within four weeks or a spot or sore that continues to itch, hurt, crust, scab or bleed.
Watch too for skin ulcers that can't be explained. And in the case of melanoma, watch for a new mole or a change in colour, size or shape of an existing mole. Many skin changes will be harmless. But if you spot anything unusual, go see your doctor.