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5 Things you need to know about skin cancer

South Africa now has the second highest incidence of skin cancer in the world, after Australia, and it’s rising with global warming.

28 January 2022 | By Glynis Horning

1. Most skin cancers are caused by sun exposure – and it doesn’t take much!

Just one or two blistering sunburns can result in skin cancer later in life, cautions Professor Michael Herbst, health specialist at the Cancer Association of South Africa (CANSA). The World Health Organization reports that as ozone levels are depleted, the atmosphere loses more and more of its protective filter function and more solar UV radiation reaches the Earth’s surface.

2. But the sun is not the only cause

A weakened immune system, genetics (a family history of melanoma), and exposure to radiation or certain toxins can also play a part in the development of skin cancer. Smokers are more prone, especially on the lips, even if they don’t go in the sun. So are people exposed to artificial UV rays through indoor tanning devices.

Using a tanning bed before age 35 can raise your risk of melanoma by 59%, and the risk increases with each use, reports to the American Academy of Dermatology. A single indoor tanning session can increase your risk of squamous cell carcinoma (aggressive but not fatal skin cancer) by 67% and basal cell carcinoma (the most common type of skin cancer caused by exposure to the sun) by 29%. CANSA warns that sunless tanning products are also not safe – sprays and mousses may contain melanotan II, which is reported to have serious side-effects and may even cause melanoma.

3. There’s no such thing as a ‘safe tan’

The upper layer of your skin consists of squamous cells, basal cells and melanocytes. The melanocytes produce melanin, the pigment that gives skin its colour, and more is produced when you’re in the sun or exposed to other UV light, to help protect the deeper layers of skin. What you may think of as a healthy glowing tan is actually your body’s injury response to the sun’s radiation.

4. Protection from UV rays is your best protection

Cover up and avoid the sun between 11am and 3pm, whether you’re going outdoors or not. Apply sunscreen every morning to your face and all exposed body parts – just walking to the car or driving may cause accumulated sun damage. UV rays can damage your skin even on overcast or winter days when there’s no sunshine. And while dark skin has more protection than fair, it’s still vulnerable to damage. Whatever your skin tone or type, use a full spectrum sunscreen that protects against both UVA rays (the kind responsible for ageing) and UVB rays (the kind responsible for burning), says Herbst.

Choose a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 if you’ll be mainly indoors, or 50 if you’ll be outdoors. Apply it 20 minutes before direct contact with sunlight and reapply every two hours or after sweating or swimming. Use at least a teaspoonful for your face, two tablespoons for your body – and remember the backs of your ears and tops of your feet, he says. Also wear protective clothing: long sleeves and pants, a broad-brimmed hat and quality sunglasses.

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5. Check regularly for signs of skin cancer 

CANSA recommends a monthly self-check for any signs of skin abnormalities. Don’t forget between your toes, the soles of your feet, on your scalp, inside your ears, around your eyes, under your nails (remove nail polish), under your breasts, inside your mouth and on your genitals (use a mirror or ask a partner to help). Common moles are round and symmetrical, smooth with even borders, and a single shade of black or brown. Look out for a mole or mark that is asymmetrical, has irregular, poorly defined borders, changes colour (to tan, black, brown red, white or blue), is bigger than 6mm across (the size of a pencil rubber), or grows and becomes more prominent. If you notice any of these signs, have them checked out by a dermatologist.

It’s also wise to have a baseline skin check each year with a dermatologist or at a CANSA Care Centre with a FotoFinder Dermoscope machine and ask about mole-mapping – especially if you have more than 50 moles or have ever been badly sunburned. Then go for check-ups every two or three years if you’re dark-skinned, yearly if you’re fair. It could save your life. 

For more information visit cansa.org.za 

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