Here comes the sun

Try to think of sunbathing like sticking yourself in an oven; so says one New Zealand skin expert. You’ll want to protect yourself – here’s how

As we get ready for summer, it's important to brush up on sun safety. You may think a lecture on how to slip, slop, slap is a little redundant. Well, so did we, until a survey conducted by the Skin Institute found skin cancer still isn't taken seriously by New Zealanders. More than 35 per cent of respondents said they lie in the sun for between one and 10 hours each week, one in five said they go outside without sunscreen to get a tan, and one in three admitted they had been sunburned to the point of peeling at least once in the past year.
Those are some big, scary statistics when you consider New Zealand has some of the highest rates of melanoma in the world, according to the Ministry of Health. Every year, around 4000 people are diagnosed with melanoma, and around 300 die from it. On average, more men are diagnosed with it than women and 70 per cent of cases are in those aged 50 and above.
If you read that last statement and thought, "Phew! I'm years away from being at risk," that's not true. It can take decades for bad sun habits to catch up with us, but it nearly always does.
Dr Mark Gray, from the Skin Institute, busts some skin cancer myths.
Why does New Zealand have such a high rate of skin cancer?
"We are exposed here more than probably other places in the world, for a variety of reasons. Part of that is the ozone layer, although people play that up a little. It's really a lot to do with the clarity of the air; being a maritime, small island, we don't get a lot of that continental dust. There's not a lot of filtering out there. And we have a high recreational environment, where a lot of people are very into their sport. So there's a lot of intermittent sun exposure and burning, and that – particularly during childhood – is your biggest risk factor."
So we have to be aware of sun health from a young age?
"Getting cumulative sun exposure over time is not such a big risk factor, but getting those intermittent bursts of sunburning is – particularly during childhood. Young children are in their formative, DNA-evolving stage. So each of those cells is very responsive to the environment – and if that environment gets stressed with UV exposure, you'll respond with abnormal repair mechanisms and that's probably what results in the cumulative long-term risk of developing skin cancer. So defending your children is key – but I find young mums are far better at looking after their children than themselves. And women are much better, generally, than men. It's that attitude of 'I'm bulletproof and I don't need to do any of those things'. Men – usually single, young men – are the highest risk category."
What is the difference between melanoma and skin cancer?
"Melanoma is only one form of skin cancer. Stop thinking of mole checks and start thinking of skin checks – because we're really looking for your overall risk factor; non-melanoma skin cancers are much more common than melanoma. They're little scaly things, nodules, non-healing sores, basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma. It's really important to know the difference, because melanoma is largely inherited and the other types are not. Yes, melanoma is influenced by sun exposure but your genetics play a big part. If your brother or sister had melanoma, then you're considered high risk and you should be seen every year."
How do I keep an eye on my skin?
"Fortunately, skin cancer is visible and something you can check for. However, it's hard to teach people how to recognise skin cancer, so we're still in a position where we have to rely on the medical professionals to check things. If you're ever worried about anything on your skin because it's changing or because it's new – and those are the two big things to look for – just get it checked out. If your GP says it's nothing to worry about, but you continue to worry, get a second opinion. Mole mapping is very good for high-risk people, but it's not a stand-alone thing – you should also see a GP or specialist.
"There are a vast number of people who aren't proactive, who don't get things checked and wait too long – that's why we still have such a high mortality rate. But even those who are checked adequately can find a melanoma and die from melanoma. The idea with regular skin checks is that you'll pick it up earlier, and your survival rates will be better.
"Sunscreening in New Zealand is really important because it's like sticking yourself inside an oven – you're just going to crinkle up and burn. If you can start to think of the sun as not just a lovely thing to play in, but a thermal reactor – it's like being exposed to a nuclear explosion when you go out there. It's a pretty deadly thing."

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