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If the sun makes you feel the heat

Exploring the relationship between the sun and unprotected over exposure, and how to stay safe when outdoors. 

Too much or too little of the sun? That is a question that has baffled people across the world. The answer however is to stay safe in the sun, you need adequate protection. An increased risk to sun can pose the threat of skin cancer. According to the Cancer Council almost 980,000 cases of Basal cell carcinoma (BCC) and Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) are treated every year, while around 13,000 people in Australia are diagnosed with melanoma. But the truth is we also need the sun to stay healthy and thrive. 

So, let’s take a closer look at the link between the sun and how it can be harmful to the skin and more importantly what we can do to protect ourselves while still getting all we need from the sun. 

Cause and Effect

Overexposure to UV radiation is a threat. When UV radiation from the sun interacts with exposed and unprotected skin the structure and behavior of the skin cells are vulnerable to damage which, if not repaired, could lead to faulty cell replication that triggers abnormal cell growth, eventually causing cancer. The Cancer Council states that 95% of skin cancers are caused by UV exposure.

It’s important to note that radiation cannot be seen or felt and has no connection with temperature, which means even on cool days UV radiation could be just as strong and sunburns aren’t necessarily an indicator that skin cells have been damaged. While there is absolutely no link between solar energy and skin cancer, studies suggest that it could be the result of regular exposure to UV radiation over an extended period of time.

Why are Australians most affected? 

Many will say that the ozone hole over the South Pole is at fault. But that’s not the whole story. While it has led to an increase in exposure to UV radiation to an extent it is not the leading cause. 

Most Australians are fair or pale skinned, which means our bodies produce low quantities of the protective pigment melanin, leaving our skin more vulnerable to damaging UV rays. That being said, melanin is not a guarantee against skin cancer, though the rate at which it is seen in people with darker or pigmented skin is lower, they are at risk too. And pale skin paired with our closeness to the equator, which is responsible for the greater amount and intensity of sun exposure we receive, puts us at a greater risk. 

The earth’s elliptical orbit isn’t in our favor either. The planet is about 1.7% closer to the sun during summer in the southern hemisphere while it is 1.7% away from it during summer in the northern hemisphere. What does that mean? We are 3.4% closer to the sun when it is at its strongest, increasing our exposure to UV radiation by about 7%.

Prevention is priority

We can’t change any of these. However, there are precautions we can take to reduce the risk while we soak up the goodness of the sun. 

> Try to stay in the shade between 10.am and 3 p.m.

> Apply UV-protective films on home or car windows. 

> Cover up with lightweight, long-sleeved and full-length clothes, UV-blocking sunglasses and a wide brimmed hat.

> Avoid getting sunburned.

> Use a broad-spectrum sunscreen with SPF 15 or higher. Try to apply it at least 30 mins before stepping out. Be sure to check the expiration date. 

> Keep infants out of the sun and ensure that you apply sunscreen on toddlers. 

> Conduct self-exams weekly or at least monthly and take note of discolorations or unusual growths. Consult your doctor if you have any concerns. 

> Visit a dermatologist for a skin cancer screening at least once a year. 

Balancing act

The sun is a very important part of our lives and we cannot afford to live in the shadows – we need our daily dose of vitamin D. The need then is to find a balance of just the right amount of sun to stay healthy and protect ourselves too. 

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