Updated: Feb 13, 2021
As we roll into Summer here in the Southern Hemisphere, the sun gets warmer and the days get longer. We start spending more time outdoors, some of us lathering on the sunscreen, and others the tanning oil. Some of us will get burnt, and others with the 'lucky' genes will tan. At a young age, we don't usually worry about what this sun exposure is doing to our skin. It isn't until middle age that we may begin realising that we have 'wrinkles', frantically applying serums and creams as a cure-all. Some of us may be told the unfortunate diagnosis of skin cancer, early or later stage. Unfortunately, this is becoming a more common occurrence in Australia. We are very unlucky to have a depleted ozone layer, which act's as Earth's very own sunscreen by blocking out the Sun's UV rays. The ozone layer has thinned over Australia, increasing our exposure to UV radiation and subsequent susceptibility to skin damage. Australia is now the number one country in the world for skin cancer diagnoses. This is why prevention is KEY. Wear your sunscreen. Please don't use tanning oil - this will increase your absorption of damaging UV rays. Get your skin checked at least once a year, or 6 monthly if you're at high risk.
When I was in Croatia early last year, I got burnt multiple times, especially on my chest and shoulders. Then, when I returned to Australia, over the next few months I began to notice moles pop up on these exposed areas, and ones I already had appeared to look like they were growing. At the time, I booked an appointment with my GP, who assured me these were fine. Over the next year however, I thought they may have grown again. I recently visited my GP for a skin check, and she assured me they appeared completely normal under inspection. In my younger years I would never have though of attending my GP for a skin check. Likely because I work in medicine and study health science, I have become more aware. And I'm not even high-risk! I have a tanned complexion. The only genetic link in my family is my grandfather, who is of British and French descent. He has very pale skin, freckles easily, and didn't wear sunscreen in his younger years. As a result, over the past 20 years, he has had reoccurring lesions that need to be removed, which luckily haven't been invasive or metastatic! It honestly worries me to know that there are people out there who aren't as aware as I am and who are more susceptible to skin damage than I am. This is why it is SO important to practice sun safety and get your skin checked!
How do I protect my skin from the sun?
The Cancer Council (Australia) has some great advice on this. They advise on using a range of protective measures, which include:
Wearing sun-protective clothing, which covers as much skin as possible
Wearing a broad spectrum and water resistant sunscreen that is SPF 30 or higher (SPF50 is best). This should be put on 20 minutes prior to going outdoors, and reapplied every 2 hours
Wearing a hat that will cover your face, head, neck, and ears
Wearing sunglasses (that meet Australian Standards)
Staying in the shade
Let's talk sunscreen
Believe it or not, there are 2 different types of sunscreen; chemical and physical. Chemical sunscreens enter the skin, which then absorb UV rays and convert them to heat, releasing them from the body. In comparison, physical sunscreens sit on top of the skin, reflecting UV rays.
I personally choose to opt for physical sunscreens, which consist of natural ingredients. My favourite natural sunscreens I have used over the years include:
When applying sunscreen, the Cancer Council advises on using at least one teaspoon per a limb, one teaspoon for the front of the body, one teaspoon for the back, and one teaspoon for the head.
But what about Vitamin D?
Referred to as a vitamin, Vitamin D is actually a hormone that is synthesized in our skin when we are exposed to UVB rays from the sun. In the skin, 7-dehydrocholesterol (a precursor made in the liver from cholesterol) is converted to previtamin D3. Previtamin D3 is then converted by the liver to 25-hydroxy vitamin D3 (calcidiol), with the kidneys eventually converting this to 1,25-dihdroxy vitamin D3 (calcitriol). Calcitriol is the active form of Vitamin D, playing roles not only in bone and skeletal health, but also in immune regulation, cancer prevention and inhibition, blood sugar and blood pressure regulation, and skin health. Thus, Vitamin D is super important for health!
Although Vitamin D can be obtained from food, the best source is when we produce it from sun exposure. Depending on where we live, our skin colour, the time of year and day, cloud coverage, and environment, our ability to produce Vitamin D will vary. During the summer time in Australia, most of us should be able to obtain adequate levels by spending a few minutes with our skin exposed on most days of the week. During the cooler months when the UV is at its lowest, spending 7–40 minutes (depending on latitude) outdoors in the middle of the day on most days with your skin uncovered is helpful.
The Cancer Council then recommends using sunscreen when we are spending extended periods of time outdoors, or when the UV Index is 3 or above. As the UV Index is generally higher in the northern areas of Australia when compared to the southern areas, sun protection is required all year round. In the southern areas, as the UV index generally falls below 3 early morning and late afternoon in the warmer months, it is considered safe to go outside without sun protection during these times.
For more information about sun safety, heaps of resources can be found on The Cancer Council's website.