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Skin Cancer Danger: Not Just in Summer

Snow on the ground doesn't mean you don't have to worry about sun exposure. Sunburns -- and skin cancer -- can happen even in winter months.

The Skinny of Vulnerability continued...

The heat is on. There are reports that the infamous hole in the ozone layer may contribute 2%-3% to Australia's skin cancer risk, although there is no direct evidence, says Slevin. Nonetheless, a World Meteorological Organization report that the ozone hole is growing faster this year than in previous years, and that it is as large as the all-time record of 28 million square kilometers (about 17.4 million square miles) set back in September 2000, can't be good news for Australia and other parts of the world.

The ozone layer usually acts as a natural barrier against the sun's damaging rays, and if the thinning of this protective substance isn't controlled, there is tremendous potential for the U.S. to be affected, says Weinstock. Right now, he says, the problem is probably having more of an impact on polar areas such as Southern Australia.

Preventing Skin Cancer

To curb its spiraling rates of skin cancer, Australia has aggressively promoted several sun protection campaigns in the past two decades. The most popular is the Slip! Slop! Slap! program, in which people are encouraged to slip on a shirt, slop on sunscreen, and slap on a hat before going out in the sun.

The Sunsmart program also calls for people to:

  • Stay in the shade during midday hours (usually around 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.), the prime time for UV exposure.
  • Dress in clothing that covers arms, legs, and neck. In Australia, many garments have UV ratings on the labels, which indicate how well they protect skin.
  • Don a broad-brimmed hat.
  • Put on sunglasses that block out 95%-100% of UV rays.
  • Wear sunscreen that has at least a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or more. It must be applied at least 20 minutes before going outside in order to give it time to bond with the skin.

The Australian initiative has been so successful in changing attitudes about sun protection that countries such as the U.S., U.K., and New Zealand have borrowed it to beef up their own skin cancer prevention drives.

"Sunscreen should be used to complement other sensible sun protection measures, including use of shade, protective clothing, hats, and sunglasses," says Sinclair, in an official response to the RAFT research, released by The Cancer Council Australia.

Weinstock of the American Cancer Society says there's no question that sunscreen is effective in protecting the skin from harmful rays because studies have been done to prove it.

Spring in Sydney, Autumn in New York

No one is at zero risk for developing skin cancer, whether you are bushwalking outside Sydney, skiing in the Rockies, trekking through the man-made jungle of New York, or playing rugby in London.

A person's overall risk, says Weinstock, depends upon many factors, including one's location on the planet, the elevation of the place, the time of day of exposure, length of time in the sun, susceptibility to disease, and a host of other personal circumstances.

What is important is to be aware of warning signs of skin cancer because early detection is critical to survival.

"People need to look at their skin carefully on a regular basis, and if they see a spot on their skin that is changing in size, shape, or color, they need to bring it to the attention of their doctor," says Weinstock.

Reviewed on February 21, 2007

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