Tanning truths: Reduce your risk of skin cancer this summer
Summer has finally arrived in the UK and we’re doing some straight-talking to tell you the truth about tanning, sunburn and skin cancer to raise awareness of the importance of sun safety.
Skin cancer rates have more than doubled in the last 30 years in the UK, with over 155,000 new cases reported each year. Yet, pop into any supermarket or high street beauty shop and there are huge sections selling sunscreens that claim to protect us from the sun’s harmful rays.
Back in the early 20th century (that’s the Edwardian era, through to World War I) pale skin was all the rage as it was seen as a sign of wealth, with suntanned bodies being more common amongst outdoor-working (i.e. lower-class) people. The trendy look of the age for aristocrats and the well-to-do elite was to actually coat their faces in white paint (later found to be toxic) because being pale was seen as good etiquette and the ultimate in fashion. However, during the 1920s, this obsession with being fair skinned began to change and, with increased international travel becoming more common amongst the rich and famous, sun-kissed skin became a must. Ever since, having a suntan has been entrenched in our culture and seen as an essential part of mainstream beauty.
In this article, we’re exploring some common sun and skin cancer related beliefs, and tackling these head on with tan truths, to set the record straight about sun safety. We’ve also created a handy graphic with tips on staying SUN SAFE FOR LIFE for you to share and help spread the message about reducing the risks of skin cancer.
“I look and feel so much better with a tan, and I never burn.”
TAN TRUTH: A tan is a sign of skin damage which can lead to cancer
Many people report they feel and look better with a tan. The problem is, most people probably don’t understand what a suntan actually is. So to put it simply, a tan is the body’s response to UV radiation – it is a visible sign that skin cells have been damaged, and this damage is ultimately the root cause of skin cancer. Getting tanned every so often does not mean you will get skin cancer, but every time UV rays penetrate the skin’s surface, DNA damage occurs within skin cells. The skin then releases melanin to try and protect itself from further damage, which is the pigment that provides the longed-for change in skin colour that we admire so much.
The more frequently you tan, the more damage occurs, and the more likely these skin cells are to become cancerous. Sunburn is even worse, and means that skin cells are permanently damaged. Peeling and blisters occur when the body is shedding dead skin cells.
Some people believe that tanning beds are a safer way to get a tan than lying in the sun, and hordes of Brits use them regularly to achieve a bronzed look before an event or holiday, or just as part of their regular ‘beauty’ treatment regime. The truth is, tanning beds are NOT safer than the sun; they expose the skin to UV light, just like the sun does, and are proven to damage the skin which increases the risk of skin cancer, so using them is a no-no.
“I have dark skin – I don’t need sunscreen!”
TAN TRUTH: Anyone, of any colour or background, can develop skin cancer
Generally, those at greater risk of developing skin cancer ARE likely to be of a paler complexion, as there is a greater risk of burning in the sun. It’s true that skin cancer is less common amongst Black or Asian populations, but darker skin tones can and do develop skin cancer, despite having more melanin than white skin types. Melanin is a natural pigment within the skin that gives some sun protection. However, this higher level of melanin isn’t enough to protect black or darker skins from cancer developing. Many Black or Asian people are only diagnosed at a later stage of the disease, making it more difficult to treat. This suggests there may be a lack of awareness and accurate information about skin cancer risks amongst some Black and Asian communities, and more may need to be done to increase use of sunscreen.
“Skin cancer only affects moles – it must be easy to spot.”
TAN TRUTH: There are different types of skin cancer – melanoma and non-melanoma – which cause different symptoms
Skin cancer symptoms differ according to the type of skin cancer a person has. Melanoma skin cancer does affect moles, which may change shape, size, colour, become inflamed or spread. New moles may also be melanomas. However, non-melanoma skin cancer may appear as a change to the skin rather than a mole. It may be a bump, lump, spot, patch of dry/scaly/rough skin, blister or ulcer type growth, or a spot that doesn’t heal.
Both types of skin cancer are most common on areas of the skin that are frequently in the sun (e.g. face, head, arms, legs) but can appear anywhere, so it’s really important to check your skin from top to toe regularly to ensure there are no problem areas you need to get checked. Make it part of your weekly self-care routine, and get family members to check each other’s hard-to-see areas, such as the back and shoulders. Skin cancer is highly treatable if it’s diagnosed early, so being vigilant and paying attention to your skin is really important. Just like women are taught to check their breasts for symptoms of breast cancer, and men need to check their testicles for signs of testicular cancer, we also need to make it commonplace to do a thorough and frequent skin check.
If you find anything odd on your skin that lasts more than a few days or gets worse, get it checked by your GP.
“I’ve never used sunscreen, there’s no point starting now.”
TAN TRUTH: Whatever your age, using sunscreen can stop further damage and may help prevent skin cancer developing
Older people who may have never used sunscreen as a child, or throughout their lives, will still benefit from protecting themselves against the sun. Skin damage that causes skin cancer may have been developing for many, many years, but wearing sun screen and changing your habits to become safer in the sun will help stop further damage occurring, and reduce the risk of developing the disease. It’s like when a smoker quits a 30-year smoking habit – their risk of developing chronic or deadly health conditions such as COPD, heart disease and lung cancer decreases and they add years on to their life expectancy.
Sun exposure also causes premature ageing, so if you’re worried about your wrinkles, sagging jowls or brown age spots, start practicing sun safety by wearing sunscreen and you will prevent further UV-related ageing.
“Children don’t get skin cancer – a bit of sun won’t hurt them.”
TAN TRUTH: Children need sun protection to reduce their future skin cancer risk
It is quite rare for a child to develop skin cancer, but it’s important for everybody, including kids, to have adequate protection from the sun to prevent the skin becoming damaged, which may eventually lead to skin cancer. It can be difficult to ensure children are well protected – they often dislike sun creams, love playing outside, remove their hats and really hate being confined to shaded areas. However, it’s important for parents and carers to instil good sun safety practices from birth, making it just part of normal life. Children’s skin is also easily burnt, which not only means that some skin cells have been permanently damaged, but also means they are likely to be in pain, causing upset for everyone.
“I wear sunscreen when I’m sunbathing on holiday.”
TAN TRUTH: Great, but there are lots more things you need to do to be safe in the sun
Lots of people who holiday abroad will slap on sunscreen for a day round the pool or at the beach, which is great and really important. However, it’s not the only time you need to wear sunscreen. In the UK, whilst we may not always hit the temperatures that some European or further afield holiday destinations get to, the sun’s UV rays are still powerful enough to penetrate cloud and cause skin cells to change, which is the precursor to skin cancer developing. We should all wear sunscreen every day we are exposed to the sun for longer than a few minutes.
Also, whilst wearing sunscreen is great, there are plenty of other sun safety precautions you can take, which may not always be at the front of your mind. Share our SUN SAFE FOR LIFE graphic below and take the first step in reducing your risk of developing skin cancer.
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