Will you be working outside a lot this summer? While many of us enjoy the brighter, warmer days, with the sun comes the risk of doing damage to our skin. Although spending time outside is a luxury for many of us, for others, it’s unavoidable, and for outdoor workers sun protection should form part of their workplace’s health and safety policy. Painful sunburn isn’t the only reason to cover up or use sunscreen; skin cancers are also a danger, with the number of cases of melanoma skin cancer (the most serious kind) having increased by 128% since the early 1990s. Read on to learn how to spot skin cancer and what you can do to prevent skin cancer.
What is skin cancer?
Skin cancer is caused by DNA damage to cells in the skin, causing them to multiply uncontrollably, and comes in two main types: melanoma skin cancer and non-melanoma skin cancer. The survival rates for non-melanoma skin cancers are very high as it can usually be cured, and for this reason, it isn’t featured in UK cancer statistics. However, these cancers can still develop dangerously if untreated, and it’s possible for the cancer to spread to other parts of the body. Melanoma skin cancer is significantly more dangerous, so we’ll discuss it first.
All types of skin cancer are usually caused by exposure to DNA-damaging UV radiation in the sun’s rays or artificial UV radiation from sun beds. This may be long term exposure or from short periods of intense sun exposure, typically resulting in sunburn. The risk of developing skin cancer is affected by:
- Your amount of exposure to UV radiation
- Your history of sunburn
- A previous diagnosis of skin cancer
- Your age
- Your skin type
Skin cancer becomes more likely as you get older, and the likelihood of developing skin cancer increases the lighter your natural skin tone and hair colour is. People with very fair skin, particularly with fair or red hair, or with a lot of freckles, are more at risk. Skin cancer rates in Australia are particularly high, due to the sunny climate and predominantly Caucasian population. However, while darker skin offers more natural protection from UV damage, people with darker skin can still get skin cancer, particularly in areas that typically receive less sunlight like the soles of the feet or palms of the hands.
You should always seek professional medical advice if you suspect you have any kind of skin cancer.
Melanoma is differentiated from other skin cancers because, unlike other cancers, it starts in cells in the skin called melanocytes, found between the dermis and epidermis. These cells manufacture melanin, which absorbs and dissipates UV radiation and is responsible for our skin tone; when the skin tans, this is the result of an increase in melanin production to help protect the skin from UV damage. Tanning is actually a sign that the skin has been damaged.
Along with the general skin cancer risk factors, the number of moles on your body, and whether or not you have a family history of melanoma, are also factors. Almost 16,000 people were diagnosed with melanoma in the UK in 2015, and it’s the country’s 5th most common cancer. Although 90% of people survive, almost 2,500 nonetheless lost their lives in 2014, and 86% percent of melanoma is believed to be preventable.
You should see a doctor if you have a new mole or an existing one that:
You can see pictures of melanomas here.
- Is changing shape, particularly if it's becoming irregular
- Is changing colour - getting darker, becoming multi-shaded or patchy
- Is getting bigger
- Becomes asymmetrical
- Becomes itchy or painful
- Starts bleeding or becomes crusty
- Looks inflamed
Non melanoma skin cancers
There are several kinds of non-melanoma skin cancer, the most common being basal cell skin cancer and squamous cell skin cancers. The appearance of these cancers varies – click here to see some examples.
You should see a doctor if you have a spot or sore that hasn’t healed within 4 weeks, one that hurts, is itchy, crusty, bleeds or scabs over for more than 4 weeks, or ulcers that don’t heal within 4 weeks and haven’t got an obvious cause.
Although the good news is non melanoma cancers are very curable, the bad news is they’re very common, with around 131,000 new cases each year. Despite being the most common type of cancer of all, they’re often left out of cancer statistics because of how rare fatalities are.
Preventing skin cancer
Skin cancers can develop years after damage from the sun by ultraviolet light. UV rays damage the DNA in skin cells, and while the body tries to heal this damage (which causes the symptoms of sunburn), it isn’t 100% effective, so this DNA damage can accumulate over time until cells become cancerous. The good news is that UV damage, and therefore skin cancer (except basal cell carcinoma), is usually easily prevented by limiting exposure to the sun, either with clothing or with sunscreen.
Top tip: If you work outdoors on a regular basis, check the weather forecast for UV levels. Depending on your skin tone, if it’s medium or higher, it’s time to consider the risk of skin damage! The Met Office has a detailed UV forecast
which ranks the level of UV radiation from 1-9+, and Cancer Research UK
recommend considering protective measures if the UV level is at 3 or more (though the level of risk depends on your skin type).
How does sunscreen work and why are there different factors?
Sunscreen, whether a lotion, spray or gel, is designed to absorb or reflect some of the sun’s ultraviolet radiation, helping to protect against DNA damage and resulting sunburn, as well as slowing down skin ageing. There are actually three kinds of ultraviolet radiation: UVA, UVB and UVC.
Fortunately, UVC is blocked by the Earth’s Ozone layer. UVA can penetrate window glass and reaches deeper into the skin than UVB, which causes sunburn. Some, but not all, sunscreens block both UVA and UVB. These sunscreens are recommended, as UVA may not be a primary cause of sunburn but it does increase the risk of melanoma. However, sunscreen typically affords much better protection from UVB than UVA.
Sunscreens are generally labelled with a sun protection factor (SPF) which primarily indicates the fraction of UVB radiation which reaches the skin when the product is applied. ‘SPF 15’ indicates 1/15th of the UVB radiation reaches the skin. The higher the SPF factor, the better the protection.
In the EU, sunscreens must provide a minimum level of UVA protection in relation to its SPF rating. A sunscreen with a UVA protection factor of at least 1/3 of the stated SPF can carry a ‘UVA Seal’. In the UK, sunscreens typically display a 0-5 UVA star rating, with five being the highest rating. Be aware that a low SPF sunscreen may have a five star UVA rating, but this doesn’t mean it provides a high degree of UVA protection; this indicates a good ratio between UVA and UVB protection. Therefore, a sunscreen with a low SPF rating won’t offer a large amount of UVA protection even with a five star rating.
The British Association of Dermatologists recommend you use a sunscreen of at least SPF 30 which also has a high UVA rating. We sell Delph sunscreen with SPF factors of 30 and 50,
which offer 4 star UVA protection. Delph sunscreen is non-greasy, easy to absorb and water resistant, containing vitamin E and aloe-vera, and represents excellent value.
What can I do to treat sunburn?
While it’s best to avoid sunburn altogether to protect your skin from cancer, ageing, and general pain and discomfort, there are products you can use to soothe your skin if you do become burnt. Healing typically takes around a week. Until then, after sun products
can moisturise your skin and reduce discomfort. Over-the-counter painkillers can help relieve pain, as can cold baths or showers and drinking plenty of fluids. Products designed to cool regular burns, like Cederroth Burn Gel Spray
and Burn Stop Burn Spray
, or those designed to treat wounds, like Savlon Antiseptic Cream
, can also help soothe and heal sunburn.
Other outdoor occupational hazards
Working outside also exposes you to more bites and stings from insects and, for those working in natural settings or parklands, ticks and the risk of Lyme disease. Insect bites and stings pose no real danger, unless you suffer an allergy. You can stop biting midges and mosquitos with insect repellent
, and keep some cream handy to relieve itching if you are bitten
. Most importantly though, as its cold, windy, rainy or even snowy the rest of the year, enjoy the sunshine!