| 6.1°C Dublin

Some like it too hot

BingEing is something we Irish do well. We love nothing more than a good burst of excess to elevate the mood and banish mundane cares. But overindulging in one of our rarest commodities is threatening the health and well-being of a growing number of Irish people. Be warned, sunshine may be heavenly but worship with caution or you may live to regret it.

Despite our weather woes in recent summers, levels of malignant melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, have increased dramatically. Latest data from the National Cancer Registry of Ireland shows that 756 new cases were diagnosed in 2008, up from only 393 10 years earlier. The biggest increase has been among people in their 60s and 70s.

"We live in an age of cheap travel where sun holidays are almost the norm for most people," says Dr Rosemary Coleman, consultant dermatologist at the Blackrock Clinic in Dublin. She warns, however, that much damage is also done at home due to poor sun-care practices.

Melanoma is the most dangerous form of skin cancer, and the most difficult to treat. It begins in the outer layer of the epidermis, in cells called melanocytes. These are the ones that give our skin colour. Once the melanoma gains a foothold in these outer cells, the cancer can move into the dermis below. At this stage it becomes invasive and much more difficult to treat.

"Everyone, regardless of skin colour, is potentially at risk," says Norma Cronin, health promotion manager at the Irish Cancer Society. "And anyone who spends time outdoors is in danger, not just those who sunbathe." Some of us are at a higher risk than others, either because of our skin type or our behaviour in the sun.

Unlike some other threatening illnesses, there is little doubt about the cause of skin cancer. Up to 90pc of all cases, including melanoma, are the result of exposure to the two types of ultraviolet rays (UV) produced by the sun. UVB causes sunburn while UVA causes premature ageing.

Of course, human skin varies greatly in how it responds to UV exposure. "In general, there is a more damaging response in people who have very fair skin, people who cannot tan or have difficulty tanning," says Cronin.

Fairer people, those with skin types I and II, are more vulnerable to the ill-effects of UV radiation, both short-term burning and long-term skin cancer and ageing. The bad news is that two-thirds of Irish people fall into this group.

Even if you do tan, it's not something to shout about. "Tanning is your body's attempt to protect itself," says Cronin. It's a result of ultraviolet damage. Tanned skin can still burn if it's exposed to sunlight," adds Cronin.

Dr Coleman has noticed a dramatic increase in the number of younger women with skin cancer, particularly those with fairer skin.

"A tan is still seen as something good, something healthy," says Dr Coleman, "but it can be quite the reverse."

She is deeply concerned by those who believe that sun block is not necessary in our cloudy climate and cautions those who still cling to some risky myths.

"I still get patients who believe that you can't get burnt through glass or when it's cloudy," says Dr Coleman. The truth is, up to 90pc of ultraviolet radiation can pass through cloud so your skin can get damaged even on an overcast day.

Children are perhaps most at risk from the sun. Our youngsters spend more time outdoors and get an average of three times more UV exposure than adults. Because of this, over a lifetime most people will get 80pc of their exposure to the sun in their youth and only 20pc as an adult.

Cronin is keen to connect with parents who may not realise the threat posed by playful sunny days. "Children should be kept out of direct sunlight between 11am and 3pm," she advises. "Protect their skin with hats, clothing and sunscreen and protect their eyes with sunglasses." Children's skin is particularly sensitive to the sun's rays whether or not they tan easily.

If vanity makes it difficult for you to let go of old tanning habits, then consider your visible future. Protecting yourself from the dangers of skin cancer will also keep you young. Exposure to the sun causes premature ageing, including wrinkling, redness, freckling and disfigurement. So for health and beauty's sake, slather on the sunblock, seek out the shade and sip a cocktail in sheltered seclusion. Your skin will thank you in years to come.

If you are concerned about skin cancer, please call the National Cancer Helpline on Freefone 1800 200 700 (open Monday-Thursday 9am-7pm and Fridays 9am-5pm)