So, winter is finally behind us and you’re probably enjoying this glorious sunshine which has, no doubt, put a smile on your face, lifted your spirits and given you a bounce in your stride. But, not to put a downer on things, it’s vital to remember the potentially harmful effects the sun’s rays can have on our skin.
The sun can age our skin – we all know that – but most of us love the sun. We feel happier when we see blue skies, our vitamin D levels are being given a boost and the same UV rays responsible for damaging our skin also help to release endorphins (“happy hormones”). We all seem to agree that a tan makes us look healthier and feel better about ourselves.
However, the sun can also be our biggest enemy in the case of skin cancer – which is now the sixth most common cancer in the UK. Even non-melanoma skin cancers (which aren’t as aggressive as malignant melanomas) affect thousands of people every year.
Don’t panic though, most moles are completely innocuous and don’t cause any problems, but some can (and do) become melanomas. These are serious forms of skin cancer, which can be treated, but if they’re not caught, they can be fatal.
It’s hugely important to know how to protect your skin, and remember, if there is anything you feel is “suspect” – have it checked. If there is any sign of skin cancer, the earlier it’s caught and dealt with, the more likely the treatment is to be successful.
Non-melanoma skin cancers and pre-cancerous growths often appear on skin which has been exposed to the ultraviolet light of the sun or sunbeds – just be extra vigilant.
Do you know what to look for?
If you have small, painless, slow growing, shiny pink or red lumps/nodules or scaly patches which can bleed, ooze or become ulcerated or crusty (usually on the upper part of the body), have them checked. It could be a basal cell carcinoma (BCC), which is also sometimes referred to as a “rodent ulcer”.
If you notice persistent pink lumps with irregular borders, central depressions, scaly/hard skin on the surface and red, inflamed bases (which feel tender or bleed if bumped), make an appointment. This may be squamous cell carcinoma (SCC), which can occur anywhere on the body.
In the case of red, itchy, scaly patches with irregular outlines on the trunk, arms and legs or genitals – see the doctor. This may be Bowen’s disease and could develop into squamous cell carcinoma.
There are other less common types of non-melanoma skin cancers, get into the habit of checking your skin regularly, you will soon spot any changes. If you find any, don’t be afraid to have them looked at!
Other signs of sun damage
Freckles – usually on the upper body and face, they are small, round, flat and brown and more often than not, harmless. They are very common amongst fair skinned people and those with red hair. If you do spot any changes though, make an appointment.
Liver spots/age spots – more of a “giveaway of age” as they usually appear after we hit 40! Mostly on the face and hands, as well as areas exposed to the sun, they are flat, tan, brown or black. If you find them particularly bothersome, they can be lightened with cosmetic bleaching treatments.
Solar Keratoses – what are these? Again, usually found on the upper body and face, they appear more often than not in people over 50, as rough, small, scaly, thickened growths/spots on areas of prolonged sun exposure. They can also be raised, hard and warty and sometimes they can develop a horn like growth (called a cutaneous horn). While solar keratoses aren’t cancerous and don’t cause any harm, you should still have them checked as there is a chance that one can turn into a squamous cell carcinoma (SCC).
So, how do we protect ourselves?
It might not be what you want to hear, but stay in the shade between 11am and 3pm!
Wear a hat – the wider the brim, the more protection for your face, ears and head.
Sunscreen is vital – a minimum protection of SPF20 and be GENEROUS with it! Pop it on at least 30 minutes before going into the sun, then REAPPLY at least every 2 hours, more if you are swimming (use waterproof sun creams too).
Make sure you know your “factor facts” – the SPF increases (multiplies) the amount of time you can stay in the sun without burning. If you would burn after 5 minutes, an SPF20 means you can be exposed to the sun for 100 minutes without burning (5 minutes, times 20). Be sensible, know your skin type and try to judge the intensity of the sun carefully. Reapply sun cream regularly and VERY generously.
Protect your eyes – don’t scrimp, buy good quality sunglasses (make sure they have UV protection) with wider lenses to protect the tender area around the eyes.
Cover your shoulders (with dark colour clothes/tightly woven fabrics) and remember, wet clothes offer less protection!
Avoid sunbeds – these make the skin dry, lax and wrinkled and increase the risk of skin cancer.
Are any of us more at risk than others?
Now there’s a good question – and the short answer is: anyone can get skin cancer. But, you should be extra careful if you:
- Have a family history of skin cancer
- Have red or fair hair, with light coloured skin and eyes
- Have a large number of freckles or moles (over 50)
- Suffer from inflammatory diseases
- Have a weakened immune system
- Feel you have fair skin which burns easily and peels
- Work outside/spend a lot of time outside
- Have suffered previously with sunburn or use sunbeds
How to spot a “suspect” mole – and what to have checked – take note!
- Raised and/or enlarged moles
- Any colour changes
- Irregular, jagged, uneven edges or borders
- A mole with a diameter of more than 6mm and a mole where one half is different to the other.
Take special care of the kids – protecting them at an early age can reduce the risk of skin cancer developing later
It might not be easy, but where possible, encourage them to play in the shade.
Cover up with loose clothes to protect their shoulders etc.
Hats are a must to protect the face, scalp, ears and neck. If your little one chooses a cap, remember to cover any exposed areas regularly with sunscreen
To convince them to wear sunglasses, tell them they look “cool” in them.
Use a children’s sunscreen with an SPF of at least 15 – keep slapping it on and make sure you’ve covered the tender areas such as the tops of the ears, nose and the tops of their feet. If they are water babies and enjoy a splash around, ensure you use waterproof sun protection. Reapply sunscreen EVERY time the kids have been in water, swimming or playing, even if the sunscreen is marked as waterproof. All sunscreens, even waterproof ones, lose their effectiveness after becoming wet, so always reapply.
You will find further interesting reading on the BAPRAS website – for those of you who are not familiar with BAPRAS, it is – The British Association of Plastic, Reconstructive and Aesthetic Surgeons, known as the voice of plastic surgery in the UK.
Finally – enjoy the sun, it’s good for us, good for our bones too! But, understand it and what it can do…
If you have any concerns or questions about your moles or freckles, feel free to pick up the phone and give us a call. We would be happy to see you and if there’s anything at all which seems a little worrying, we’ll be able to discuss the options available to you for treatment.