Earlier this week, it was revealed that Sarah Ferguson had been diagnosed with malignant melanoma, a form of skin cancer. The cancer was diagnosed after she had several moles removed and analysed on the recommendation of her dermatologist. She is currently undergoing further investigations to determine whether the cancer has been caught in the early stages.
Keeping an eye on your moles — size, shape, colour and texture and any new moles — can be critical when it comes to early diagnosis of malignant melanoma — if you are worried about any, see your GP, or book a mole check with a dermatologist.
However, moles aside, you might also want to take a look at what you’re doing on a daily basis to help protect your skin from cancer. Here’s what some of the UK’s top dermatologists had to say…
Wear SPF every single day
“The official recommendations from NHS England are that you only need to apply sun protection between April and October when the UV index — which you can check on your phone — is over three,” says Dr Cristina Psomadakis, an NHS consultant dermatologist based in London.
However, like all the other experts we spoke to, she recommends getting into the habit of applying sunscreen all year round as UV rays are present throughout the year and if you’re outside, or even just by a window, you’re getting a dose of UV.
“In the winter, you are applying sunscreen not to prevent burning but to prevent cumulative UVA exposure which leads to skin ageing and the development of some skin cancers,” explains consultant dermatologist Catriona Maybury. Maybury is also the medical director at skincare brand Dermatica.
The best SPF is the one you’ll use
You want a product that protects against both UVA and UVB as, as consultant dermatologist Dr Angela Tewari explains “it’s often the initial sunburn dose from UVB, followed by a propagating and regular UVA dose that can happen through clothing which results in certain skin cancers such as melanoma.”
She also recommends using SPF50, which might sound high but as she points out “you often only really get a quarter of the strength” as most of us don’t apply enough. (You want two finger lengths for the head and neck, then the same again for each arm, the front of each leg etc.)
Don’t worry about whether your sun protection is “chemical”, also known as organic; or “physical” – also known as inorganic or mineral, this sunscreen is more likely to leave a chalky cast, especially on darker skin. Instead, as skin cancer researcher, Dr Jason Thomson, and head of medical at skincare company, Skin + Me recommends, “look for a sunscreen that you enjoy using and like the feeling of on your skin.”
Don’t forget to reapply
“Ideally apply sunscreen generously to all exposed areas 20 minutes before going into the sun and around 15 to 30 minutes after,” says Dr Thomson. “This helps cover any patches you’ve missed and compensates for the fact most of us don’t apply enough. If you’re in the sun, reapply every couple of hours and after swimming, exercise, sweating and towelling.”
But, says Dr Magnus Lynch, consultant dermatologist and surgeon at Guy’s Hospital, London, “it’s not necessary to reapply when you’re indoors — unless you’re next to a window.”
During the winter, Dr Tewari is a fan of topping up with invisible sunscreen sprays that can be applied over makeup. “These can add some moisture to the skin, make you feel hydrated and also add some sun protection.”
Try out these picks below:
Bondi Sands SPF 50+ Fragrance Free Sunscreen Face Mist, £8.99; Garnier Ambre Solaire Sensitive Face Sun Cream Mist SPF50, £11.99, Superdrug; Ultrasun UV Face & Scalp Mist SPF50, £15.40, Sephora
Be wary of other steps in your routine
“Topical retinoids, retinol or any product that impacts the skin barrier — such as acids found in skin peels, or laser treatments — can temporarily increase your chance of burning, so be extra careful after a procedure to frequently reapply sunscreen,” says Dr Maybury.
Dr Lynch says that while “it would be sensible to avoid these treatments 48 hours prior to intense sunlight exposure, there is no evidence that they increase the risk of melanoma.”
What is a ‘safe’ amount of time in the sun?
“Risks of skin cancer from sunlight exposure are cumulative so there is no ‘safe’ level of sun exposure,” says Dr Lynch.
However, Dr Psomadakis acknowledges that there are benefits to being outdoors in the sun and so advises using protective hats and clothing alongside sun protection.
Above all, avoid burning which increases your risk of skin cancer. As for using the argument that you need to get a dose of sun to up your vitamin D levels, she says that here in the UK, most of us can’t get enough vitamin D from the sun alone which is why supplementation is advised.
BetterYou D4000 Vitamin D Daily Oral Spray, £9.95
Red – or fair – take extra care
“Darker skin types contain something called Eumelanin which acts as a protection around cells’ DNA in your skin,” says Dr Tewari. “This means that darker skin types can spend a little bit longer outdoors, but they are still prone to skin cancers and do still need to wear broad spectrum SPF50.”
Conversely, Dr Tewari explains that redheads tend to have skin containing something called Pheomelanin that can actually perpetuate further skin damage.
“They should use sun protection with antioxidants, especially polypodium leucotomos which really helps reduce sunburn threshold.”
“Red hair is also associated with a variation of the MC1R gene affecting the type of melanin pigment they produce, and which has an associated increased melanoma,” says Dr Sina Ghadiri, an NHS dermatology registrar based in Leeds. So while everyone needs to be sun savvy, if you’re pale or have red hair, you need to take extra precautions.