“Melanoma is the most dangerous form of skin cancer,” says Professor Sanchia Aranda, the Chief Executive of Cancer Council Australia.
“Melanoma can appear as a new or existing spot, freckle or mole that changes in colour, size or shape. Melanoma can grow anywhere on the body, not just areas exposed to the sun.”
Non-melanoma skin cancers are the most common cancers in Australia, but most are not life-threatening if treated.
“Left untreated, these cancers may require extensive surgery that can be disfiguring, especially on the face, head or neck,” says Professor Aranda.
“There are two main types. Basal cell carcinoma can look like small, round or flattened spots that are red, pale or pearly. Some are scaly like eczema. These can be small on the surface, but if left untreated, can grow deep. These tend not to spread [metastasise]. Squamous cell carcinomas are usually scaly red areas that may bleed easily, ulcers or non-healing sores that are often painful, especially when touched. These cancers can spread to other parts of the body.”
How to check your skin
“Skin cancer is one of the few cancers that can be identified with the naked eye,” says Dr Nicholas Stewart. “Look at your skin [or your partner’s or family member’s skin] and take note of all
the spots, from freckles and moles to age spots. The first sign of cancer is usually the appearance of a new spot that stands out from other spots, or a change in an existing freckle or mole, the so-called ‘ugly duckling sign’.”
Look out for:
A Asymmetry (a mole that is not even in shape, contours and colouring).
B Border (irregular, jagged borders).
C Colour (such as brown, red, white or black).
D Diameter (greater than 6mm).
E Evolution (a mole that rapidly changes in shape, size, thickness or colour).
Why SPF 50+?
In the past few years there has been a move towards SPF 50+ sunscreens. This is because the Therapeutic Goods Administration announced a new standard for sunscreens in November 2012, increasing the maximum sun protection factor (SPF) from 30+ to 50+.
Professor Sanchia Aranda says the Cancer Council recommends using a higher protection sunscreen, but this doesn’t mean you should be complacent.
“There is a myth that if you use an SPF 50+ you can stay out in the sun longer or not reapply as often – that isn’t the case,” she says. “SPF 30+ sunscreens filter about 96.7 per cent of UV radiation, SPF 50+ sunscreens provide only marginally better protection at 98 per cent and you still need to reapply every two hours or after swimming, sweating or towel drying.”
Dr Nicholas Stewart says many of us are too frugal with our creams.
“Often people apply sunscreen so thinly that though they are using a SPF 50+, it is only achieving the protection of an SPF 10-15,” he says. “To cover the whole body, use 35ml-50ml of sunscreen.”
The Vitamin D debate
The amount of sunlight you need to make vitamin D depends on the UV level, your skin type and lifestyle.
Dr Michael Holick from the Boston University School of Medicine says, “Improvement in the world’s vitamin D status could significantly reduce the risk of many chronic illnesses, including cardiovascular diseases, Type 2 diabetes and many deadly cancers and infectious diseases.”
So how can we be both sun smart and increase our vitamin D?
“Sun protection is required whenever UV levels are three or above,” says Professor Sanchia Aranda. “Never assume that just because it’s not sunny you can’t get burnt – check your local UV levels instead.”