The seemingly-benign winter sun can be unsafe for the skin since harmful ultraviolet
rays are present at all times. So year-round skin protection is best to prevent skin cancers.
A popular misconception prevails that ‘the risk of skin cancer is lower in winters’. This is a dangerous myth. Throughout the year, direct exposure to sunrays can cause cancer because ultraviolet (UV) radiation is always present in sunlight. Even on cloudy days, protection is required as UV rays can penetrate cloud cover and still damage the skin. Moreover, sun damage has a cumulative impact. Therefore, whether a person is exposed to direct sunlight in summer or winter, it can still affect the skin.
That does not mean sunlight must be avoided throughout the day. The body needs adequate quantities of vitamin D, which is synthesized in our body on exposure to sunlight. But it is best to soak in sunlight before 10:00 am and after 4:00 pm, when it is comparatively benign and less likely to trigger skin damage. During the six hours when sunlight is harsh, it is safer to stay indoors or seek protection via a hat, cap, umbrella or sunscreen.
Categorisation and Early Detection
The cumulative damage from direct exposure to sunlight causes various skin cancers. The three skin cancer types are:
- Basal cell carcinoma: Caused by sun exposure, this often emerges as a pink bleeding spot.
- Squamous cell carcinoma: Showing up as a scaly sunspot, it is easy to cure – if detected early.
- Melanoma: An aggressive form, this represents about 5–10% of skin cancers. It can infect tissue cells early and then spread speedily within weeks. A person’s life expectancy depends on the stage of its detection.
From the above, it will be clear that timely or early detection is essential to stop the spread of aggressive skin cancers as well as for ensuring normal life expectancy. To achieve this goal, one can follow the ABCDE rule in detecting melanoma early: Asymmetry; Borders (uneven outer edges); Colour (dark black or with multiple colours); Diameter (more than 6mm); Evolving (change in size, shape or colour).
Therefore, if an old mole changes in shape, size or colour, or begins bleeding and/or itching, it is advisable to visit a doctor or skin specialist and have this checked up. Any suspected sign of skin cancer should not be ignored because early detection is crucial to stop its spread. As per the World Health Organization, up to three million non-melanoma skin cancers and 132,000 cases of melanoma skin cancers emerge annually, worldwide. Consequently, any preventive measures are not misplaced or alarmist.
Sunburn or prematurely ageing/wrinkling skin could be a sign of damage via excess UV radiation. If true, it is time to take immediate precautions. It is better to take preventive measures earlier, however, rather than doing so after the skin is severely damaged. Even the malignant forms of melanoma are easy to prevent while less-malignant forms can be treated when discovered early.
These skin changes can be appreciated by self-examination. It is always wise to consult a cancer specialist or skin specialist, if any suspicion of malignancy is there, so that it can be cured by early detection and treatment.
Skin protection and cancer prevention tips include:
- Always using a broad-spectrum sunscreen showing an SPF (Sun Protection Factor) of 30 or higher, whenever outdoors. A broad-spectrum cream protects against all forms of UV radiation.
- Applying sunscreen evenly and liberally on all exposed parts of the body.
- Reapplying sunscreen every couple of hours to counter wipe-off by humidity and sweat.
- Using an SPF 15 (or higher) lip balm, since lips can be extra-sensitive and require equal protection.
- Covering the head to protect one’s scalp and staying warm in winters by wearing gloves, jacket and a hat.
- Wearing sunglasses with large frames for protecting the eyes and eyelids as well as the skin around the eyes, which are sensitive and more vulnerable to sun-induced ageing and skin cancer.
Application of sunscreen reduces the risk of skin cancers dramatically. The protection is all the more important when visiting snow-bound regions or beaches. In the high altitudes of mountains, UV rays can be intense even in winters. Worse, the thinner atmospheric air offers less protection from UV rays and sunlight reflecting off the snow can increase ‘silent’ sunburn. In fact, almost 80% of sunrays can be reflected from the snow. Similarly, winter sunrays reflecting off the sand can still give sunburns.
In all such scenarios, sunscreen is mandatory to safeguard the skin. Always follow the mantra: ‘Better safe than sorry!’