Here is a shocking statistic: skin cancer rates have increased by almost 80% over the last 25 years. This fact is despite public education by the Cancer Council and others, such as the Slip Slop Slap campaign, encouraging the use of sunscreens. So something is not working. Here are some more striking statistics:
Two in three Australians are diagnosed with skin cancer by the age of 70.
More than 2,000 Australians die from skin cancer each year (more than road deaths)
Australia has one of the highest rates of skin cancer in the world.
Skin cancers account for about 80% of all new cancers diagnosed each year in Australia.
The increase in skin cancer rates is not limited to Australia. Even in England where the sunshine is less intense than in Australia, cases of melanoma have increased substantially. One factor is that with increasing age, years of sun exposure starts to take its toll.
The skin is the largest organ of the body and the most visible one as well. While other organs of the body serve essential functions, the skin is not only vital to our health, it is highly visible and equated with beauty. Society today places a high premium on skin beauty, but we must also be cognizant of the fact that it is only ‘skin deep’.
The skin offers us protection––a first line of defense––for the entire body. Just lose 70% of your skin, as in severe burns, and look what happens to your body. Besides the loss of vital electrolytes, you also lose some of your immunity and infections can rapidly assault the body. The skin also regulates our temperature with sweat glands and blood vessels acting as a thermostat.
One of the most overlooked functions of your protective layer is the absorption of ultraviolet light from the sun, which produces a form of vitamin D that is then converted elsewhere into its full form to assist in the prevention of osteoporosis.
Now here is the paradox. We need vitamin D from the sun, yet we hear that sun exposure is dangerous and we need to apply creams and lotions to avoid getting skin cancer. These creams, if they work correctly, shield us from UV rays that block vitamin D production. It’s not surprising then that a Sydney University study found that 58% of Australians are deficient in vitamin D. It seems you can’t win.
There have been other, well-publicized reports in the media about reactions from sunscreens. These have been severe in some cases involving both adults and children. Other studies, such as those carried out by Choice, have found the majority of sunscreens don’t do what they claim to do.
There is one final factor in the sunscreen debate. Is it possible that the chemicals in sunscreens are interacting with the sun in a negative way and causing cancer? Some studies are alluding to this argument. One reason could be the widespread use of retinyl palmitate in sunscreens. This substance is a form of vitamin A that has been linked to skin cancer in FDA-sponsored laboratory studies. One way or the other, the jury is still out on whether the sunscreens themselves are a cause for concern.
So what is to be done? Sunscreen or not, we need some exposure for vitamin D. Blocking your skin from the sun will prevent vitamin D production. The amount of exposure needed depends on skin type and the best course of action is to limit time out in the sun and to cover up with a shirt, pants and hat. That is the ultimate protection. Remember that cancer is related to the time of exposure, the number of burns that you have sustained during your lifetime, and your age. Protecting your skin, but allowing some small doses of sunlight for vitamin D production is a good strategy.
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