December brings summer holidays and time in the sun.  It is also Skin Cancer Awareness Month, which aims to build awareness about the importance of caring for your skin and avoiding damage from harmful UV rays which can lead to skin cancer.

According to the Cancer Association of South Africa (CANSA) skin cancer is the most common of all cancers, with about 20 000 cases of skin cancer being reported annually, and approximately 700 deaths occurring from skin cancer in South Africa each year.  The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that between two and three million non-melanoma skin cancers and approximately 132 000 malignant melanomas occur globally every year.

Skin cancer can affect anyone, regardless of skin colour, gender or age and South Africa has the second highest incidence of skin cancer in the world after Australia. These facts may be alarming, but because skin cancer is mainly a behavioural disease, it is mostly preventable.

Sunburn consequences 
Mark Payne, CEO of the Independent Community Pharmacy Association (ICPA) says that about 86 percent of melanomas and 90 percent of non-melanoma skin cancers are associated with exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays.  “According to CANSA, at least 80% of sun-induced skin damage occurs before the age of 18 and only manifests later in life. Therefore it is imperative to take special care of children in the sun, whether it is at the pool, on the beach, at play, or at school, and babies younger than one year should never be exposed to direct sunlight.”

“Unfortunately, sun-loving South Africans are negligent in protecting themselves from the sun and over the summer holidays, our community pharmacies are inundated with customers looking for after-sun products to help ease the discomfort of a bad sunburn, and too few customers are using sunscreen. “

According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, sustaining five or more sunburns increases one’s lifetime melanoma risk by 80 percent.

Payne advises that by using the proper sun protection measures you will reduce your skin cancer risk and help prevent wrinkles, leathery skin and brown spots.

ICPA’s 10 sunsafe tips:

  1. Seek shade, especially around midday.
  2. Cover up with clothing to protect exposed skin.
  3. Avoid tanning, especially between 11 and 3.
  4. Never use UV tanning beds.
  5. Wear a hat with a wide brim to shade the face, head, ears and neck.
  6. Use lip balm with a minimum of SPF 20 and apply regularly.
  7. Wear sunglasses that wrap and block close to 100% of both UVA and UVB rays.
  8. Use sunscreen with broad spectrum (UVA and UVB) protection and sun protective factor (SPF) 15 or higher.  Ask your local pharmacist for advice on the best sunscreen for your skin type.
  9. Remember to reapply sunscreen at least every 2 hours and after swimming, sweating, or drying off with a towel.
  10. Keep babies out of the sun. Sunscreens should be used on babies over the age of six months.

Choosing your sunscreen
With so many different types of sunscreen creams and sprays available it can be overwhelming to know what to choose.  ICPA advises you to look at the SPF and UVA ratings first.

“SPFs measure how much time in the sun your skin can tolerate before burning.  If your skin normally burns after fifteen minutes, an SPF 10 lotion will increase the time you can safely stay in the sun by ten times – i.e. 2 ½ hours,” explains Payne.

“The paler your natural skin tone, the more protection it needs to prevent sunburn, the development of skin cancer, and premature ageing.

“Skin is classified into seven different types: people with type 1 and 2 burn easily, tan only slightly and have a high cancer risk – generally Celtic, red head or very fair people. Skin types 5-7 are predominantly dark Asians and Africans, who have a very low cancer risk and rarely burn. In between are skin types 3 and 4 with a moderate to low cancer risk, encompassing the vast majority of Europeans, Mediterranean’s and paler-skinned Asians,”

ICPA recommends that that people with skin types 1 and 2 should always use a minimum SPF of 30 during the summer. Type 3 or 4 should use a minimum of an SPF 15 but preferably also an SPF 30 to avoid developing wrinkles and sunspots. People with dark skin (types 5-7) should use an SPF 15.

“If you are planning on spending time outdoors this summer then be sure to chat to your local pharmacist – ICPA wants South Africans  to be sunsafe – Our community pharmacies are situated in nearly every town, and we are here to help,” says Payne.

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