Did you know it's the most diagnosed cancer in Ireland? We investigate why.
Hands up who wears SPF every day? I’m a self-confessed SPF fanatic, and I’m hoping that my skin and my health will thank me for it. Over the past few years, there’s been a surge of interest in and education on the importance of SPF, from the point of view of aesthetics and health. If you read an article about skin issues or ageing, it will tell you to wear SPF. If you go to a skin specialist to perfect your skin routine, they’ll ensure that you use an SPF daily. Even if you scroll through Instagram or flick through the TV channels, you’ll be inundated with sun protection this, SPF that.
Yet while we’re constantly told emphatically why wearing SPF daily is so important, there’s still surge of skin cancer cases in Ireland. According to figures from the Irish Skin Foundation, there were 10, 554 cases of non-melanoma skin cancer and 1,138 cases of melanoma diagnosed in 2016, making skin cancer diagnosed cancer in Ireland.
According to Dr Laura Lenihan, Avène’s new suncare brand ambassador, there is one big reason behind the fact that skin cancer is the most common type of cancer here. “Irish people are more vulnerable to sun damage because we don’t have as much melanin in our cells, so, therefore, we’re more at Irish for skin cancer,” Dr Laura tells STELLAR.
But what about all the essential Vitamin D, and that gorgeous sun-kissed look that many of us long for? It turns out, as you may have known, that there is literally only one safe way to achieve a beautifully bronzed glow, and that’s from a bottle.
Dr Laura explains that even a slight natural tan is in fact a visible sign of sun damage, and can be quite detrimental to the skin. “Ultimately, tanned skin is a sign of sun damage. When we talk about a tan being a healthy glow, the fact is it’s the opposite. It’s quite unhealthy because that’s excess melanin being produced, and that melanin serves to protest the genetic material in our bodies from causing cancers.”
Wearing SPF these days is a lot easier than it used to be. We are slowly overcoming the misconceptions around it – it doesn’t clog pores or leave a nasty white cast as older formulas did, and as well as that, you now can’t smell it from two counties away. In my own experience, when I was younger, wearing sun protection was something that you’d get, for lack of a better word, slagged for. Sure why wouldn’t you want a gorgeous tan? Mothers would slather their children in SPF, ignoring their wails and complaints, but once we got to a certain age, it was almost cool to lounge sans protection and opt for baby oil instead.
But in the years since, SPF has become more of a must-have, especially when people are visiting foreign beaches (remember that?) or on that handful of days each year when we’re treated to the Irish sun. Although according to Dr Laura, there’s still a blatant misunderstanding when it comes to wearing sunscreen.
“One misconception about SPF is that I don’t think people realised that you need to wear it every single day. There are different types of UV rays – the UVA rays, in particular, are present 365 days of the year. They’re the ones that get through glass, so whether you’re at home, in your car, anywhere, they’re affecting you. Then there are the UVB rays, which cause burning. As I always say when it comes to UV rays, A for ageing and B is for burning.”
This brings us on to the use of tanning beds, which are also a hotbed of UV rays (excuse the pun). According to the Irish Cancer Society, sunbeds emit UV rays that can be up to fifteen times stronger than the midday Mediterranean sun. Just let that sink in. If you’ve used a sunbed, your risk of getting melanoma skin cancer is increased by 20 percent, and if you’ve been partial to a sunbed before the age of 35, this risk increases by almost 60 percent. The figures don’t lie, and read just like a short horror story.
The partially good news is that it’s easy to spot skin cancer in its early stages. Whether you’ve been a fan of sunbeds in the past, or haven’t been overly diligent about sun protection, it’s worth knowing what your skin looks like ‘normally’ so that you can easily identify anything that seems abnormal. If you’re unsure about what to look out for when it comes to skin cancer, particularly if like many people your skin is dotted with moles, Dr Laura has broken it down into layman’s terms.
All you have to remember is two things: the ugly duckling test and your ABCDEs.
“It’s really important for everyone to monitor their skin and know what’s there and what’s normal for you. There are two different types of cancers, there’s melanoma, and then there’s non-melanoma skin cancer. Non-melanoma usually comes with age, due to long-term chronic exposure. Then there’s non-melanoma, which is most common in the younger age groups. When it comes to melanoma, there are certain things to look out for.”
A is for ‘asymmetry’: “When you’re looking at a mole on your skin, the mole should look perfectly normal and completely round. B is for the border, so you’re looking for a change in the border of the mole. C is for if the colour starts to change. D is for diameter, so be aware if the size starts increasing. And finally, E is for elevation, where you have a mole that starts to rise off the skin.
“Another way of looking for something abnormal is the ugly duckling test – you’re looking for something on your skin that develops completely differently to any other moles or freckles that you may have.”
According to Dr Laura, wearing an SPF that protects you from the sun’s rays alone just won’t cut it. Ideally, the product you want will have a broad-spectrum protection, meaning that it will protect your skin against both UVA and UVB rays (remember, UVA for ageing and UVB for burning). Luckily, almost every SPF on the market is now a broad-spectrum product. But as well as using a high protection SPF, Dr Laura recommends staying out of direct sunlight during its strongest hours, which is from 12pm to 3pm.
“It’s also really important to wear sunglasses with protection from UV rays, because you can actually get melanoma in your eyes, so high-quality sunglasses are key.”
If you weren’t fully aware of the importance of SPF before clicking on this article, you now know how crucial it is for you to wear sun protection every day. And yes, that’s every. Single. Say. There’s zero shame in it, and you can bet that you’ll be grateful for the sake of your skin and health in the future that you upped the ante when it comes to sun protection.