Have a sunsmart summer with Professor Joanne Aitken

November 30, 2018

Have a sunsmart summer with Professor Joanne Aitken

It’s summertime, which means one thing – more time spent in the sun. Here on the Sunshine Coast, we’re so fortunate to have a healthy outdoor lifestyle, which is even more reason to take sun safety seriously. Professor Joanne Aitken from Cancer Council Queensland explains what skin cancer is and how we can stay sunsmart this summer.

Professor Joanne Aitken
Professor Joanne Aitken

What is skin cancer?

Skin cancer can occur when skin cells become damaged. The leading cause of damage is from ultraviolet (UV) radiation. There are three main types of skin cancer;

• Basal cell carcinoma

• Squamous cell carcinoma

• Melanoma – which is the most dangerous form of skin cancer

What symptoms and signs should we be looking for?

It’s important to get to know your skin so you notice if there is a new spot or lesion, or a spot or lesion changes in shape, colour or size. This can include crusty, non-healing sores, any small lumps that are red or pale in colour and any new spots, freckles or moles that change over a period of weeks or months.

skin check

What causes skin cancer?

The majority of skin cancers are caused by overexposure to UV radiation from the sun. UV damage is cumulative, meaning it builds up over time, increasing the risk of developing skin cancer. Research also shows that high sun exposure in childhood significantly increases melanoma risk
later in life.

Anyone can develop skin cancer, however people with fair skin, skin that burns easily, and a family history of skin cancer are among those with the greatest risk. People with many moles on their skin
are also known to have an increased risk
of melanoma.

What is the treatment for skin cancer?

Skin cancers are treated in various ways depending on the type, size and location. If detected early, many people will only need to have a biopsy to remove the cancerous cells. However, some people who are diagnosed with melanoma may also need to undergo chemotherapy, radiation therapy or other treatments.

How can we prevent skin cancer?

The best way to prevent skin cancer is by staying SunSmart when outdoors. Sun protection is required when the UV Index is three or above, which is all year round in Queensland. Using only one method of sun protection is also not enough – it’s important to take a comprehensive approach and use all five recommended methods of protection.

Slip on protective clothing, slop on SPF30+ broad-spectrum water-resistant sunscreen and reapply throughout the day, slap on a broad-brimmed hat, slide on sunglasses, and seek shade where possible.

During the summer months, what are the most dangerous times of day to be in the sun in Queensland?

Throughout summer, the UV can be three or above from as early as 6.30am and as late as 5.30pm some days, so it’s imperative to adhere to sun safe guidelines at all times to protect your skin from sun damage. You can check the UV levels on the free SunSmart app.

What is vitamin D and how do we maintain adequate levels without exposing ourselves to too much sun?

Vitamin D forms in the skin when it is exposed to UV radiation from the sun. It can also be obtained from some foods. We need vitamin D to maintain good health and to keep bones and muscles strong and healthy. However, sensible sun protection does not put people at risk of vitamin D deficiency. For most people, adequate vitamin D levels are reached through regular incidental exposure to the sun. When the UV Index is 3 or above, most people maintain adequate vitamin D levels just by spending a few minutes outdoors on most days of the week.

skin screen

What is the difference between chemical sunscreen and physical sunscreen? 

The Therapeutic Goods Administration regulates sunscreens ensuring that only approved ingredients which have been assessed for quality and safety, are used in each product. There is now very strong evidence that the commonly used active ingredients in sunscreen do not pose a concern for human health. Some sunscreens may market themselves as organic or natural – these products often use physical blockers, such as zinc. We recommend using an SPF30 or higher sunscreen that is broad spectrum, water resistant and TGA approved. As long as your sunscreen meets these requirements, the brand or ingredients you choose is up to you. What is most important is to find a sunscreen that you like and suits your budget, as this means you will be more likely to use it. To check if something is TGA approved, look for the reference to say that the product complies with AS/NZS 2604:2012.

How can we tell what skin type we are and what difference does it make when it comes to skin cancer and prevention?

People with fair skin, skin that burns easily, and a family history of skin cancer are among those at the greatest risk of developing skin cancer. If you fit into one of these categories, it’s important that you are extra vigilant when outdoors. Despite this, everyone can still be at risk of developing skin cancer so slip, slop, slap, seek and slide when you head outdoors. 

Slip, slop, slap, seek and slide

In Queensland around 324,000 non-melanoma skin cancers are diagnosed every year, and around 3700 melanomas. Sadly around 315 people die from melanoma each year. Skin cancer is one of the most preventable forms of cancer and as damage is cumulative it is never too late to make improvements to your sun protection behaviours. 

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