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Protect the skin you’re in

Dr Katharine Harkin

Special Registrar in Public Health Medicine, Nationcal Cancer Control Programme

Skin cancer is the most common cancer in Ireland, with over 11,000 new cases diagnosed in 2015. The National Cancer Registry of Ireland (NCRI) expects this number to treble by 2040. Most skin cancers can be prevented.

The National Cancer Control Programme (NCCP) aims to prevent cancer, treat cancer. Similarly it aims to increase survival and quality of life for those who develop cancer. Cancer prevention is the cornerstone of the National Cancer Strategy. NCCP and partners aim to increase knowledge on ways to protect your skin and reduce the risk of skin cancer.

What causes/increases the risk of skin cancer?

Exposure to Ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun, even on cloudy days, or from artificial sources like sunbeds is the most common cause increasing risk of skin cancer.

Effects of UV rays are not the same for everyone, the fairer your skin, the more cautious you need to be in the sun.

Know your skin type. Your skin type cannot be changed, it is determined by your genes and it does not vary according to how tanned you are. Most people living in Ireland have Fitzpatrick skin type 1 or 2 and are particularly vulnerable to sun damage and skin cancer. However anyone, no matter their skin tone, can get skin cancer.

Babies and young children are particularly vulnerable to sun exposure. Extended sun exposure can cause sunburn and serious eye damage. Even one episode of sunburn during childhood nearly doubles the risk of melanoma later in life.

Dispel the myths

The notion of a ‘healthy tan’ is a myth: Tanning of the skin is the body’s attempt to prevent further harm to skin cells’ DNA – tanned skin is damaged skin.

Most people think about sunburn as something that just happens when abroad on holiday or during a particularly sunny day in Ireland. However, the sun does not need to feel hot to increase risk of skin cancer. The skin is damaged by UV radiation, which is not seen or felt, so don’t be fooled by mild temperatures. UV radiation in Ireland is highest between the months of April and September.

Protect the skin you’re in

Be aware of protecting your skin while you’re out and about, especially between April and September. Getting outdoors and being active is good for your physical and mental health but remember to follow these top tips to protect the skin you’re in.

  • Stay safe and limit time in the sun, especially when the sun is strongest in the late morning through mid-afternoon (11am-3pm).
  • Seek shade when the sun is strongest, remember to cover prams.
  • Wear a wide-brimmed hat, wraparound sunglasses with UV protection and opt for loose clothes that cover your skin.  
  • Use water-resistant broad spectrum sunscreen with SPF 30+ and reapply regularly. No sunscreen can provide 100% protection; it works best when used alongside other protective measures such as clothing and shade.
  • Never use indoor tanning devices such as sunbeds, tanning booths and sunlamps.

In Ireland, the risk is highest between 11am and 3pm. Be especially careful about protecting your skin from sunburn during these hours by seeking shade, covering up with clothing, a wide brimmed hat and sunglasses and using sunscreen on the parts you can’t cover.

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