As we head into summer, many of us will be spending time outdoors for sport, swimming, barbecues and Christmas lunch in the sun.
But that lifestyle spent enjoying the sunshine has a cost: Australia has one of the highest rates of melanoma, the deadliest skin cancer, in the world.
We look at a few common assumptions about skin cancer and find the answers from Melanoma Institute Australia dermatologist, Dr Linda Martin.
Why sun protection matters
Despite decades of sun-safety messages and skin checks, melanoma is the third most common cancer affecting Australians. Perhaps surprisingly, it’s also the most common cancer affecting younger Australians aged 15 to 39.
Dr Martin says one in 14 Australian men and one in 21 women will develop a melanoma during their lifetime. “That’s the equivalent of two children in every class getting a melanoma as adults, and that’s almost entirely preventable.”
Melanoma is a type of cancer that develops in the pigment cells of skin. In fact, melanoma is the most dangerous form of skin cancer because it can quickly spread to other organs if it isn’t detected early.
According to the Melanoma Institute Australia, too much exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light causes 95% of cases of melanoma. That’s why the best way to prevent melanoma is to protect your skin from the sun, and to avoid tanning machines or sunbeds.
Many of us carry around incorrect myths – some from our childhood - about staying safe in the sun. Here are some of the most common.
Myth: ‘Regular skin checks will be enough to prevent a melanoma’
Protecting your skin from the sun is the best way to prevent melanoma, rather than relying solely on regular skin checks.
“Getting your skin checked and early detection of any problems is important, but it’s far more important to protect your skin from sun damage before melanoma occurs,” Dr Martin says.
Get to “know your skin” by monitoring moles and freckles and see your doctor if you notice anything new or different.
Myth: ‘Sunscreen is adequate sun protection’
Sunscreen is only one part of sun protection, Dr Martin says. “Sunscreen is useful to cover up parts of the body that you can't protect with anything else, but on its own, it’s not enough.”
For the best sun protection, avoid the midday sun and use shade, clothing and a hat to protect your skin.
When buying sunscreen, choose one that you like the feel of on your skin – you’ll be more likely to use it regularly.
Myth: ‘A few hours of sun won’t do any harm’
Ideally, avoid going out into the midday sun whenever possible. Of course, life doesn’t always allow for it, such as if you’re playing sport, or working outdoors, you’ll need good sun protection when the UV index is 3 or above, Dr Martin says.
If you need to be outside but can’t find shade, use an umbrella or portable gazebo for shade.
Wear a broad-brimmed hat – and remember kids need them too. While schools have rules about “no hat, no play”, children should also wear hats when walking to and from school, during sport and on weekends.
Myth: ‘You can’t burn on a cloudy day’
Clouds do lower the UV index a little bit, but it doesn’t block UV radiation completely, Dr Martin says. You’ll still need to protect your skin on cloudy or overcast days, as the UV can be just as strong, if not stronger, on an overcast day.
Myth: ‘Childhood sunburn doesn’t mean I’ll develop melanoma as an adult’
Sun damage during childhood is a risk factor, Dr Martin says.
“High sun exposure under the age of 10 doubles melanoma risk, so it’s really important to protect children as much as possible. We have come a long way, but there are still a lot of improvements to make for sun safety in children.
“For example, we could have sunscreen stations in primary schools, competitive sports uniforms for children that meet Australian standards for sun protection/body surface area coverage and hat wearing in high schools.”
Myth: ‘I’ve been careless with my skin, so it’s too late to bother taking care of it now’
For melanoma, the biggest risk factor is “episodic burning” or intense intermittent sun exposure, such as indoor workers who then have a lot of sun exposure on weekends and holidays, Dr Martin says.
“That kind of no sun exposure - severe burn, little sun exposure, severe burn - seems to be more linked with melanoma.”
The good news is, it’s never too late to start good sun protection. Even if you have had a lot of damage in childhood, you can still reduce your risk, Dr Martin says.
“Remember that sun protection is not just for the beach - it is for every day.”
Research has shown that daily sunscreen use starting at any age still halves melanoma risk.
Myth: ‘Mole count doesn’t increase melanoma risk’
The biggest risk factor for melanoma is mole count, not skin colour. Having lots of moles means you have a much higher risk of melanoma, Dr Martin says.
“If you have more than 100 moles, your risk of getting melanoma is six times higher than the normal population.”
That compares to having have red hair or very fair skin, which doubles your risk compared to the normal population.
Only 30% of melanomas develop from pre-existing moles, while the other 70% occur in totally new areas.
“That’s why it’s important to look out for any new spots on your skin, or changes in an existing mole or freckle. No matter how small or insignificant you might think, get any suspicious spot checked by a doctor.”