What is sun damage? I spent the first half of my life in sunny South Africa so this is a concept that is very close to home. In those days, sunscreen was something you applied at the beach. In fact, it was more likely to be referred to as “suntan lotion” giving the impression that you put it on in order to go out and get a tan. I can certainly recall being sunburnt as a child. This isn’t because my parents or teachers were careless or negligent. This was the norm. No one knew what SPF actually meant and so my hastily smeared factor 6 was expected to see me through the entire day. These days we are much more clued up about the dangers of the sun, particularly in regards to our children. Some adults still have a bit of catching up to do, but overall we're getting better at protecting our skin in the sun and seeking early detection of sun damage from specialists.Whilst sunburn is clearly a painful warning that your skin has been damaged by too much ultraviolet (UV) radiation, there are other undesirable consequences of excess sun exposure further down the line including premature ageing of the skin and, even more worryingly, skin cancer. After specialising in dermatology, my own personal interest in sun damage led me to undertake an extra year of study in order to complete a post-qualification fellowship in melanoma. People who have had sunburn are more than twice as likely to get melanoma than those who have not and the risk is even higher if you have had sunburn several times in your life. All good reasons to know how to protect your skin properly in the sun and how to spot the signs of skin cancer.So what can you do about it?
- Check your skin at home once per month when you get out of the bath or shower so that you are familiar with what is normal for you.
- Cover up, seek shade or stay out of the sun if possible between 10am and 2pm.
- Be extra careful near water, snow and sand as they reflect UV rays which can increase your chances of sunburn.
- Get vitamin D safely through a healthy diet and vitamin supplements if necessary. Do not use this as an excuse to sunbathe and never use sunbeds.
- Wear sunscreen between April and September in the UK if you’re spending time outdoors or by a window with sunlight streaming through. You can be caught out on cloudy days so don’t be falsely reassured if the weather is overcast.
- Apply sunscreen to dry skin 15 minutes before you go outdoors and reapply every two hours if you’re continuing to expose your skin throughout the day.
- Don’t be put off by the the sunscreens of yesteryear which were thick, sticky and left yellow marks on your clothes. I have been able to convince lots of cynical patients to use sun protection on a daily basis throughout the year by introducing them to products that look and feel just like a moisturiser or BB cream. This includes acne sufferers who need a bit of guidance about products that aren’t going to make their breakouts worse.If you’ve never had your skin checked by a dermatologist, booking in for a full skin check is a good place to start. This is even more important if you have any moles that are increasing in size, changing shape or colour, itchy, bleeding or behaving differently in any way. Although your GP or mole mapping clinic should alert you if there are any worrying features and may recommend a specialist referral in turn, a consultant dermatologist is the only doctor who is trained and qualified to check your moles so make sure you see the right person the first time. In my clinic, this means that as well as taking a detailed dermatological history, I will ask specific questions about your family and previous sun exposure to help me evaluate your risk of skin cancer. This is followed by a top to toe examination of your skin to assess your moles and any other signs of skin cancer or precancerous skin change. We will arrange for any suspicious areas to be removed and tested where appropriate and I will give you advice on how to monitor your skin for future changes. Non-suspicious warts, cysts or skin tags identified during the process can also be removed for cosmetic purposes following your appointment and I am happy to talk you through this if you are interested.