Thursday 22 March 2018

Dr Ciara Kelly on sunburn: 'We have one of the highest rates of skin cancer in the world but the lowest rate of sunshine'

Doctor's orders...

Ciara Kelly
Ciara Kelly
It’s very easy to avoid sunburn. Sunscreen is cheap and readily available.

The summer is barely two weeks old. You can count the number of sunny days we've had on one hand and already I've seen my first case of sunburn. A pair of bright red shoulders in the unmistakably Irish 'farmers' tan' motif. I, in my foolish desire to help said sunburn, offered to treat it but "No!" was the aghast reply. "It'll go brown. I just need a base." The skin in question looked quite like raw steak - brown didn't seem the likely outcome.

Sunburn is part of the Irish summer. Despite, or perhaps because of the fact that we are starved of sunshine for much of the year (Irish people are almost all deficient in vitamin D, which is produced by sunlight on skin), when it does shine its watery northern European rays on us, we tend to go a bit mad and roast ourselves in it. The result is that hot red glow off our pale white skin, that, truth be told, doesn't have the level of pigment to ever go properly brown.

So for most Irish people, the result of sunburn is not a Mediterranean-type tan, it's a lot of pain, some peeling and then a return to our previous white colour - albeit with a few freckles thrown in for good measure. Which would be fine I suppose, were it not for the fact that sunburn is a risk factor for skin cancer.

Yes, it may not be great for turning us a lovely shade of olive but sunburn is responsible for us having one of the highest rates of skin cancer in the world - despite having one of the lowest rates of sunshine.

It is quite the norm in Ireland to go out with milk-white skin on that rare sunny day without any sunscreen on at all - guaranteeing a nasty burn in the misguided belief that skin that has never gone brown in its life will somehow do it this time. And although the worst of the sunburn will be gone in a day or two, the real problem arises long after the burn has subsided, when our pale freckly skin develops nasty black moles that can be fatal.

Malignant melanoma is an aggressive, metastasising cancer that kills people. But there are also less aggressive, locally invasive forms of skin cancer too. Sunburn or sun damage is a risk factor for all of these. And we burn ourselves over and over again without ever achieving any semblance of a tan - while loading the dice for future health disaster.

The stupid thing is, it's easy to avoid sunburn. Sunscreen is cheap, effective and readily available in supermarkets. You don't have to buy the big brands to get the best quality, either. But for many Irish people, sunscreen is something you use only on holidays - not something you do here at home - and that's dangerous.

It's also paradoxical that in an era when we are obsessed with appearing young and staving off the ravages of time, we embrace the one thing that's going to age and wrinkle us like no other. Because people who wear sunscreen and avoid sunshine on their faces age far, far slower than the rest of us. Sunscreen is better than any moisturiser or botox for keeping age lines at bay. Sunscreen should be applied regularly in summer to protect skin against sunburn and to guard against skin cancer down the line. High factor creams, 50 or 30, are best for faces, which get the most exposure. And make sure tips of ears (or foreheads if you're bald) are well protected. Hats are also important, especially for the young or the old.

If I could offer you only one tip for the future, 'put on your sunscreen' would be it.


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