Health Matters

Skin cancer – protect your skin while out in the sun

Frieda Paton

The holiday season is around the corner and you’ll probably be spending more time outdoors – braaing, picnicking and swimming with family and friends. We enjoy glorious weather in South Africa but at the same time, the country has one of the highest ultraviolet (UV) levels in the world resulting in higher rates of skin cancer than in most other countries.

Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer and in over 80% of cases, it is caused by overexposure to the UVA and UVB rays of the sun. It usually results from regular exposure to the sun over a long period, but even one bad sunburn, especially in childhood, can cause damage which doubles the risk of skin cancer later in life. People most at risk are those who burn easily, have a fair skin and light coloured eyes.  Those with darker skins are however not risk-free.

Reduce your risk of skin cancer by protecting yourself while outdoors – and remember that you can burn even on cloudy days. The Cancer Association of South Africa advises that you should try and stay out of the sun between 10:00 and 15:00 and that babies under one year old should not be exposed to the sun at all.

Apply sunscreen lotion to all exposed areas of the body, not forgetting the tips of the ears, back of neck and lips.  Use a sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of between 20 and 50, and between 30 and 50 if you have a fair to very fair skin. Reapply the sunscreen about every two hours and after swimming. Wear a hat with a wide brim and sit under an umbrella, while also keeping in mind that the reflection from surfaces such as water, sand, concrete and glass can also cause sunburn.

The two most common types of skin cancer are basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma. While not life-threatening, these cancers can lead to disfigurement if left untreated.  Melanoma is the most dangerous type of skin cancer.  It spreads very rapidly, is life-threatening, and the incidence appears to be increasing.

All types of skin cancer can usually be treated successfully if diagnosed early. The warning signs that a skin lesion might be cancerous are if the lesion is asymmetrical and not round, has irregular borders, changes colour, is larger than 6mm in diameter, and/or continues to grow bigger. Check your skin regularly and visit your doctor or a clinic if you notice any changes.

You can learn more about skin cancer at

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