In the last decade the incidence of skin cancer (both melanoma and non-melanoma) has sadly increased.
Though short exposure to sunlight is beneficial for vitamin D production, prolonged exposure has many harmful effects. These include short-term problems such as sunburns and polymorphic light eruption (sometimes known as prickly heat), to long-term more significant conditions such as skin cancers (malignant melanomas and non-malignant melanomas). Sun exposure also plays a significant role in the ageing of the skin, resulting in fine wrinkles, mottling, skin roughness and pigmentation of the skin.
The sun’s damaging effects are the result of UV (ultraviolet) radiation A, B and C. UVA penetrates deep and causes skin ageing as well as some forms of skin cancers. UVB is the main cause of all types of skin cancer, as well as sunburns. UVC is completely absorbed by the atmosphere and therefore causes no harm.
Lying only 200km north of the equator, Singapore has a greater exposure of UV radiation all year round. Although cloud cover may absorb most of the UV radiation, harmful effects from the sun can still occur on a cloudy day. This means that during both a sunny and a cloudy day in Singapore, protection from the sun is essential if you are planning to spend time outwards during the daytime.
Individuals with skin type I or II are those who always burn rather than tan, usually those with pale white skin, red or blond hair, and blue or green eye. These individuals are at highest risk for photoaging and skin cancer and are in greater need of sun protection.
Epidemiological studies have shown that heavy sun exposure in childhood is a risk factor for melanoma later in life, so extra protection of your little ones is highly recommended.
There are a number of ways you can protect yourself and your loved ones from the sun:
Avoid the Midday Sun
The sun is at its peak between the hours of 11am – 3pm. Reducing exposure to the sun during these hours on a sunny or cloudy day, will significant reduce the harmful effects of the sun. This is particularly important for babies and young children.
Use Photoprotective Sunscreens
There are two types of photoprotective sunscreens, (i) absorbers of UV radiation – chemical sunscreens , which can absorb harmful UV radiation, and (ii) reflectors of UV radiations – physical sunscreens such as titanium and zinc oxide, which can reflect back UV radiation.
An effective chemical sunscreen should provide equal protection against both UVA and UVB.
Most dermatologists recommend the use of a sunscreen with a minimum SPF (sun-protection factor) of 30 or higher (SPF 50 for babies, young children and people with pale skin).
To improve the effectiveness of your sunscreen you should apply the sunscreen 20 minutes before you go outdoors. Use enough sunscreen to cover the entire body and pay special attention to the face, ears and nose. Remember that lips can burn too, so cover lips with a lip balm sunscreen or SPF 30 or higher. It’s important to remember to reapply approximately every 2 hours, or after swimming or heavy sweating.
Use Photoprotective Clothing
In addition to sunscreen, clothing should provide maximum body coverage with the use of long trousers, long-sleeved shirt, a wide-brimmed hat and UV protective sunglasses.
Tightly woven synthetic fabrics made from nylon and polyester will provide the maximum protection. Tightly woven cotton blends are nearly as UV protective and are more comfortable in the high heat and humidity.
A T-shirt will only provide an SPF of about 15, but this falls when the T-shirt is wet. Therefore it is important to apply sunscreen to covered parts of the body, as well as those that are exposed.
Clothes made from fabric that specifically provide UV protection are available. When purchasing these products, make sure that they provide an SPF of 30 or higher. These are most useful for young children and individuals who participate in outdoor activities such as hiking, exercise and gardening.
Checking your Skin
In addition to protecting your skin, it is good to make a habit of checking your skin and your family’s.
When looking for signs of malignant melanoma, use the ABCDE rule to guide you:
- A symmetry, one half is not equal to the other
- B order, an irregular or poorly defined border
- C olour, a variation in colour, tan, brown, black and sometimes white, red, blue
- D iameter, usually greater than 6mm, but can be smaller
- E volving, a mole that is changing in size, shape or colour or is different from other moles
When looking for signs of non-melanoma skin cancers, you should be aware of:
- A spot or sore that does not heal within 4 weeks
- A spot or sore that continues to itch, hurt, scab, crust or bleed for more than 4 weeks
- Areas where the skin has broken down or ulcerates with no obvious cause, and does not heal within 4 weeks
One benefit for a lot of us who live in Singapore is the year round sunshine, that is when it’s not pouring down with rain! However, even when you don’t intend to ‘sunbathe’, if you spend more than 20 minutes outdoors in Singapore, whilst you are running quick errands or picking up the children, it is still important to protect yourself and your loved ones from the sun.
If you have any concerns about your skin then consult your doctor for a full skin check
Be sun smart and enjoy the outdoors safely.