August 08, 2018

How to keep your skin safe from the sun

By Anna Sharratt

Our summers may be short, but Canadians are highly susceptible to skin cancer. So if you’re out in the sun, wear a hat and load up on the sunscreen.

Meaghan Baron never dreamed she would be diagnosed with skin cancer. Knowing she was high-risk because of her blue eyes and pale skin, she had always used sunscreen religiously.

But at age 30, encouraged by her husband to check out some unusual bumps on her chest, she ended up in a dermatologist’s office. The bumps were just skin tags, but at the doctor’s suggestion, she had a mole scan, a full-body examination of skin irregularities. That’s when the dermatologist found a dark mole on the inner thigh, which she biopsied. “I would have never noticed it,” says Baron. The shocking diagnosis came back several days later: early-stage melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer. Baron was terrified — and then relieved to hear there was a happy ending. “It’s the worst possible cancer you can get if you don’t catch it early. But at that stage, once you remove it — it’s all gone.”

Within days, Baron had surgery to remove the mole. She knows she’s lucky she caught it early: “The surgeon said that if I had waited a year or two it would have killed me.”

Melanoma increasing among young

Dr. Barry Lycka sees cases like this all of the time. Melanoma is increasing in younger age groups, says the Edmonton-based dermatologist and founder of the Canadian Skin Cancer Foundation, though less-dangerous basal and squamous-cell cancers are more common. He says increased sun exposure without sunscreen and the popularity of tanning beds, “which increase the risk of skin cancer 1,000-fold,” are to blame for the surge in cases.

According to the Skin Cancer Susceptibility Index 2018, a study from a German organization that gives dermatological advice, Canadians are at a high risk for skin cancer. We rank 19th among the 62 countries surveyed, using factors like average UV light, average skin tone (based on demographics) and rates of new skin cancer diagnoses. Not surprisingly, New Zealand and Australia rank one-two on the list.

Another risk factor is an active lifestyle in which lots of time is spent outdoors without adequate sun protection, says Dr. Cheryl Rosen, the national director of the Canadian Dermatology Association’s sun awareness program in Toronto. “Sunscreen lets you stay out a lot longer in the sun, but you still get exposure,” she says.

Outdoor sports, gardening, relaxing around the pool and other summer activities are common occasions for unprotected sun exposure. Winter vacations at sunny destinations are also treacherous when it comes to increasing your skin cancer risk, says Lycka. “People don't protect themselves enough,” he says. Plus, in the quest for the perfect tan, they take chances they wouldn’t take ordinarily, exposing skin that hasn’t seen sunlight in months to very intense rays.

“Unfortunately, a tan is still looked upon as something positive,” says Rosen. “Be happy with the colour of skin you have.”

How to protect your skin from the sun

Here's how you can take steps to protect yourself this summer and particularly when heading south at any time of the year.

  1. Skip the tanning salon. Sure, a base tan might seem like a good idea. But Lycka cautions the exposure to UV rays just raises your skin cancer risk.
  2. Use plenty of sunscreen, with an SPF (sun protection factor) of at least 30. And use it generously — spreading it too thinly will not create a barrier that provides the SPF you think you’re getting, says Rosen, who advises using a shot glass-sized amount for the whole body. To help prevent skin cancer, Health Canada suggests you apply sunscreen to exposed skin 15 to 30 minutes before you go out in the sun, and again after 15 to 30 minutes. Make sure you re-apply sunscreen after working up a sweat or swimming.
  3. Cover up. Wear a wide-brimmed hat and a shirt with sleeves, advises Lycka.
  4. Stay in the shade. Hide out under a tree between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. to avoid the period of highest sun intensity.
  5. Take additional precautions when on medication. If you’re on certain medications such as heart drugs or acne treatments, you may be extra-sensitive to the sun and burn more easily.

How to identify melanoma

After you return from a vacation in the sun, it’s also wise to get yourself checked out by a dermatologist. Lycka tells his patients they should have an annual mole check with a doctor. “On your birthday, get your birthday suit examined. That way you remember to do it once a year.”

And always watch for any changes in your skin. Be on the lookout for:

  • Moles with irregular borders, asymmetry, a size greater than 6mm or that are very dark or black in colour.
  • Patches of skin that bleed and crust over repeatedly or change in any way, becoming larger, itchy, a different colour, a different shape or raised or textured.

If you’re in any doubt about a skin lesion, check it out with a doctor. The vast majority of skin cancers are completely curable if caught early.

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