Sun Safety with Dr. Michael Mol

South Africa is renowned for its sunny skies and pristine beaches, but spending too much time enjoying these natural wonders could place you at risk of something else we are famous for – malignant melanoma. South Africa has one of the highest incidences of malignant melanoma in the world. It is the most dangerous form of skin cancer, one that becomes life-threatening in as little as 6 weeks, so it’s vital to spot it early! Even better would be to protect yourself with these sun safety tips.

Malignant melanoma develops from normal pigment-producing skin cells, called melanocytes. If these become abnormal, grow uncontrollably, and invade surrounding tissues they are called melanomas. What makes melanomas so dangerous is that they grow extremely quickly. This type of cancer becomes life threatening in as little as 6 weeks. If untreated, it can spread and start to invade other parts of your body.

Sun safety and vitamin D

You may have heard that using sunblock all the time puts us at risk for vitamin D deficiency. On the other hand we want to avoid skin cancer, so now what? Most South Africans get adequate vitamin D from just a few minutes of daily exposure to sunlight. Even when you’re wearing sunscreen, small amounts of UV rays still penetrate your skin, so stick with the sunblock! Ironically, despite our sunny skies, as many as 1 in 5 South Africans have a vitamin D deficiency. If that could be you, you’ll need to use a vitamin D supplement.

Those with darker skins also need to practise sun safety

You may have also heard that people with darker skins don’t need sunblock because their skin is naturally protected. Perish the thought! It is true that skin cancer happens 15 times more often amongst fair skinned South Africans, so having darker skin does have its benefits. The extra melanin gives skin its darker colour. It also provides a natural SPF of around 13 for darker skins, but it isn’t enough to protect the skin from all sun-induced damage. What’s concerning is that melanomas are often picked up far later on darker skins than on those on fair skin. As a result, these melanomas are a lot more advanced, and a lot more dangerous.

How to tell if a mole is a melanoma?

Becoming aware of what’s normal and what’s not will be half the battle won. However, there are only 208 practising dermatologists in South Africa. 165 of these dermatologists are exclusively in private practice. This means that around 85% of our population are left totally exposed (excuse the pun) with a ratio of one dermatologist for everyone one million South Africans.

Mole mapping is a brilliant way to keep track of the health of your moles and your skin overall, but with such a shortage of dermatologists, it’s a bit of a challenge to get everyone to do one. Fortunately there is a DIY skin cancer check that everyone can do, and it’s as easy as knowing your ABC…DEs!

  • A for Asymmetry – a mark with one half unlike the other (not symmetrical)
  • B for Border irregularities – or poorly defined edges.
  • C for Colour changes – tan, black, brown, red, white, blue.
  • D for Diameter – mainly larger than 6mm
  • E for Evolve – the “mole” grows bigger and becomes more prominent.

Bottom line

The key point here is that sun safety is critical for prevention of skin cancer. Skin cancer can be easily managed provided it’s caught early enough, so becoming aware of what’s normal and what isn’t is the first step in keeping your skin healthy and cancer free.

A note from Vital’s Experts:

Try Vital Vitamin D3 1000IU to prevent vitamin D deficiency while you practice sun safety.