24 November 2009

Sun exposure: FAQs

If you live in South Africa, it's hard to avoid the sun in summer, even if you're indoors most of the time. Brush up on facts about sun exposure, and cut your risk for skin cancer.


If you live in South Africa, it's hard to avoid the sun in summer, even if you're indoors most of the time. Brush up on facts about sun exposure with these frequently asked questions, and cut your risk for skin cancer.

Q: When do I need to protect myself from sun exposure?

A: Protection from sun exposure is important all year round, not just during the summer or at the beach. Any time the sun's ultraviolet (UV) rays are able to reach the earth, you need to protect yourself from excessive sun exposure. UV rays can cause skin damage during any season or temperature.

Relatively speaking, the hours between 10am and 3pm are the most hazardous for UV exposure in South Africa.

Remember: UV rays reach you on cloudy and hazy days, as well as bright and sunny days. UV rays will also reflect off surfaces like water, cement, sand and snow.

Q: Is there any research indicating the time difference between an adult and a child burning in the midday sun? I understand children’s skins are more prone to burning because their skin is thinner.

A: Babies and young children do have thinner, more delicate skin than adults. Because of this, their risk of getting burnt by the sun is much higher. Children need to be protected, not just from painful sunburn, but from developing skin cancer. You should keep children and yourself out of the sun when it is at its hottest. You should also never use a sun bed. Babies and children should always wear brimmed hats and protective clothing in the sun.

Q: Can you give me some advice on itching moles? My GP says not to worry, but I am still concerned.

A: There are several signs that a mole might be developing into a melanoma, which is the most dangerous type of skin cancer. Worrying signs are if the mole is:

  • Getting bigger
  • Changing shape, especially if it is becoming an irregular shape
  • Changing colour or becoming patchy looking
  • Itching
  • Bleeding

A mole that is showing any of these signs should be looked at by a specialist. There are many harmless reasons for a mole to itch but you may be advised to have it removed. A specialist will then closely examine it under a microscope to see if there are any cancer cells there.

Most moles that are removed will not be cancerous. But it is better to be safe than sorry. Melanoma is completely curable if it is picked up early. But if it is left and has already spread by the time it is diagnosed, the prognosis is very poor.

Read more: Know your skin cm x cm

(Information supplied by the Cancer Association of South Africa,


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Skin expert

Dr Suretha Kannenberg holds a degree in Medicine and a Masters in Dermatology from the University of Stellenbosch. She is employed as a consultant dermatologist by Stellenbosch University and Tygerberg Academic Hospital, where she is involved in clinical duties and the training of medical students and dermatology residents. Her areas of interest and research include vitiligo, eczema and acne. She also performs limited private practice work in the Northern suburbs of Cape Town in general and cosmetic dermatology.

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