Skin cancer is the most common cancer affecting Australians, with two in three of us developing the disease by the age of 70. But did you know that most skin cancers are actually preventable? Here is how you can look after your skin health and work to prevent the onset of skin cancer.
Understand what causes skin cancer
The majority of skin cancers are caused by over-exposure to the sun. UV radiation break down our skin cells, causing immediate and irreparable damage that can lead to early signs of ageing (like wrinkles and sun spots) and skin cancer. Most skin damage occurs during childhood and our early years, and the effects often don't show until we get older.
Some skin cancers can also be hereditary and there is little we can do to prevent these cancers from developing.
Protect your skin from the sun
The damaging effects of UV radiation are permanent, so prevention is better than a cure. There are many steps you can take to be sun safe:
- Avoid the sun between 11:00am and 3:00pm, as this is when UV radiation is highest.
- Seek shade whenever possible.
- Apply SPF 30+ sunscreen as part of your daily skin care routine and at least 20 minutes before you go outside
- Reapply sunscreen every two hours, or more often if you are swimming, sweating or rubbing your skin with a towel
- Wear protective clothing, including:
- a broad-brimmed hat that covers your whole head, ears and neck;
- a shirt with a collar and long sleeves;
- long trousers; and
- sunglasses that meet the Australian standard.
Avoid getting sunburnt
Your skin tans or turns red when the cells are in trauma. Sunburn is your body’s reaction to excessive exposure to UV radiation, as the top layers of your skin release chemicals that cause your blood vessels to expand, leading to pain, inflammation and redness. If you are not protected from the sun, UV radiation will immediately start to penetrate deep into the layers of your skin and damage the cells. In as little as 11 minutes, your skin turns red and may start to peel, which is the body’s way of shedding damaged cells that could become cancerous.
The symptoms of sunburn can last for days or weeks, although the effects last forever. All sunburns cause irreversible damage that fast-tracks the ageing process and increases your risk of skin cancer. You should seek emergency medical treatment if you experience:
- severe sunburn with extensive blistering and pain;
- sunburn over a large area;
- nausea and vomiting;
- fever; or
- dizziness or altered states of consciousness.
Manage the symptoms of sunburn
If you do become sunburnt, you can manage your symptoms to help your skin recover by:
- avoiding sun exposure until your sunburn has heeled;
- drinking plenty of water;
- taking cool showers;
- adding a cup of vinegar to a cool bath; and
- using a moisturiser to prevent new skin from drying out.
If you have a family history of melanoma or have been badly sunburnt more than five times in your life, you are at high risk of developing skin cancer. It is important to get regular skin checks every 12 months to detect signs of skin cancer as early as possible, when your chances of successful treatment are best.