Two out of three Australians will be diagnosed with a skin cancer by the time they are 70. Two out of three, you guys! Even if you’re absolutely hopeless at maths, that fraction should give you pause. The good news is that most skin cancers, caught and treated early enough, will not cause any long-term trouble. But you’ve got to be on guard. If you notice something odd, act ASAP. We get it, you’re busy and it’s a hassle. But just do it anyway, OK? Ask your GP or dermatologist to take a look.
Check yo’ self
Many skin cancers are slow-growing and don’t usually spread to vital organs, but the longer you leave them, the more difficult and potentially disfiguring the treatment may be. Fast-growing skin cancers, such as melanomas, need urgent attention. We’re talking, like, yesterday.
What to look for
You’re the best judge of what’s normal and what’s not for your skin. Check your entire body top to toe – even places not normally exposed to the sun – at least monthly for any new spots, sores or general weirdness. In particular, closely examine any existing moles for signs of change. (Change = not good.) Since you don’t have eyes in the back of your head (a design fault for sure!), it can be tough to check behind your ears, neck, scalp and upper back. Use a handheld along with a full-length mirror for a better view and have a partner or friend give you the once over. Schedule a yearly skin exam with a professional such as a GP, dermatologist or skin cancer clinic.
In the meantime, here are some things to look for:
- A scaly, rough, red or irritated spot that seems to heal but soon reappears.
- Itchy, sore patches that bleed and crust over and don’t go away.
- An area of skin that’s become white, taut and shiny.
- Wart-like sores with raised borders that hurt or bleed if bumped or scraped.
- New or existing moles that change colour, size or shape or that begin to itch, bleed or hurt – this is a red flag for melanoma.
Is using a sun bed OK?
You’re kidding, right? Friends don’t let friends tan, full stop. Not to mention, recent laws have banned commercial use of solariums in every Australian state! If you love to look tanned, make sure you fake it, but know that a bottle or spray tan offers no protection from the sun, so you’ll still need to follow sun-safety rules.
Am I at risk?
While some people’s risk factors are inherently greater than others, we’re essentially all at risk. Even if you are the poster child for sun protection and have the whole slip, slop, slap, seek and slide thing down to a fine art, you’re not immune.
Cumulative UV damage over your lifetime counts against you. Remember those awful summer sunburns as a kid? Your mum may have rubbed you down with metho to take out the sting but those long days baking under our otherwise lovely Aussie sun may have already exacted a toll. Your risk is even greater if you have fair skin, light or red hair, blue or green eyes and/or lots of moles and freckles and you tend to burn easily. A family history of melanoma places you at greater risk. If you have previously had a skin cancer, you’re also at higher risk of developing another.
Protect and prevent
You know the drill, along with regular self‑checks, you should:
- Use a broad spectrum, water-resistant sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher. Put it on before you head outside and reapply as the pack directs, especially when swimming, working or playing outdoors.
- Stay in the shade during the hottest times of the day. n Wear sun-protective clothing and swimwear.
- Don’t forget a widebrimmed or legionnairestyle hat to protect your face, head, neck and ears.
- Never leave home without your sunnies (your eyes and the delicate skin around them need protection too.)
- Download Cancer Council Australia’s customisable SunSmart app from the iPhone or Google Play app stores for daily UV updates and more.
Which sunscreen is which?
Sunscreens are required to be broad spectrum, which means they protect against both UVB and UVA rays. There are two main types of sunscreens – physical (or mineral) and chemical.
- Physical sunscreens block or deflect the sun’s rays. They contain either titanium dioxide or zinc oxide. They work immediately but can rub off more easily, so may need more frequent reapplication. If you have sensitive skin, a physical sunscreen might be for you.
- Chemical sunscreens work by absorbing the sun’s rays. They feel light and should be applied at least 20 minutes before sun exposure. On the label, you’ll see words such as tinsorb S, oxybenzone, dioxybenzone, avobenzone and mexoryl.
Ultimately, it’s personal preference which you use, or you can get products with both physical and chemical protection. Every sunscreen sold in Australia has to conform to Australian Standards and be listed with the Therapeutic Goods Administration, so an inexpensive sunscreen should do the same job.