Analysis: spending too long in the sun, using low factors or tanning oils or forgetting the sun cream can have catastrophic consequences

It's cold and wet outside, the days are dark and you may be longing for some winter sun. With Love Island returning to our screens, toned bodies and tanned skin will be paraded in front of us for weeks to come. Many of us admit that a "bit of colour" makes us feel good, but what is the cost to our health?

Spending too long in the sun, using low factors or tanning oils or forgetting the sun cream (especially in your teens and early twenties) can have catastrophic consequences. Skin cancer can take up to 20 years to develop, and over half of people who have had one type of skin cancer will be diagnosed with another within ten years.

The majority of Irish people have fair skin and are susceptible to the types of sunburn that underpin the development of skin cancer. Indeed, skin cancer represents the most common form of malignancy in Ireland, with approximately 12,000 new cases diagnosed in 2016.

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There are different types of skin cancer and most of which can be detected early with excellent cure rates. One type of particular concern is melanoma. It's a form of skin cancer that arises from the cells that produce melanin (the pigment that gives your skin its colour) and is easily treated at its earliest stages. But if not detected early, it has the capacity to spread quickly to other parts of the body. When this occurs, the disease is profoundly more difficult to treat: five-year survival rates are less than 15%, with life expectancy often a matter of months.

The incidence rates for melanoma are increasing faster than any other form of cancer, with almost 1,300 cases reported during 2016 making it the fifth most common cancer in Ireland. In the UK, the rates have almost doubled since the 1990s, with approximately 44 new melanoma cases now diagnosed each day. A significant factor contributing to these statistics are the increased periods of intense sun exposure through overseas holidays, and the use of sunbeds.

Around 10% of adults in the UK are sunbed users. UV rays from sunbeds cause damage to the DNA in your skin cells and this damage can build up over time to cause skin cancer. Using sunbeds can increase your risk of melanoma skin cancer by up to 20%. Sunbeds are sometimes marketed as a "controlled way" of getting a "safer" tan but sunbeds are actually no safer than exposure to the sun itself. One study found that the average skin cancer risk from sunbeds can be more than double that of spending the same length of time in the Mediterranean midday summer sun.

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But there is no such thing as healthy tanning. A tan is a reaction to damage in skin cells when it is exposed to too much UV radiation. Some people think a pre-holiday tan or sunbed tan will protect them from burning, but an existing tan offers very little protection against the sun.

Our biggest advantage in the fight against melanoma is that this is one of the very few cancers that we can visually identify forming in its early stages. It is critical that we use that advantage and to be vigilant and aware of the danger signs. This is a cancer that spreads very quickly - do not give it any opportunity to take hold. Check your skin for suspicious moles on a regular basis and report anything unusual to your doctor. The first sign of a melanoma is often a change in the colour of a mole. Note that melanomas can also appear as a new growth rather than arising in a pre-existing mole.

While checking your skin, remember the ABCDE rule:  

Asymmetry: one half of the mole does not match the other)

Border irregularity

Colour that is not uniform

Diameter greater than the tip of a pencil eraser

Evolving size, shape or colour

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If you have any suspicious moles or lesions that fit these criteria, see your doctor immediately and save your skin and your life. While melanomas predominantly occur on the surface of the skin, it should also be noted that they can occasionally develop in the eye, mouth and under your finger or toe nails.

The skin cancer research team at Ulster University (Professor Tara Moore, Dr Paul Thompson and Dr Patricia Rodriguez) are looking at modifiable factors such as vitamin D, vitamin A and forms of prostaglandins (occurring naturally in the healing of tissue damage) as relatively non-toxic approaches for limiting the progression or relapse of primary melanoma beyond its early stages, and also their use as co-treatments applied for more advanced forms of the disease. This work is supported by the David Cross Research Fund.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ