South Africans are obsessed with pigmentation. In the socio-political sense, it’s time we got over ourselves. But in terms of health, we need to obsess a bit about skin: all of us, of every hue.
One summer day deep in the 1980s, as I arranged my 15-year-old self on Muizenberg beach to fry in the sun, a teenage boy, himself immaculately tanned, strolled past and pronounced: “White. Anglo-saxon WHITE.”
It was not intended as a compliment.
Like many kids in the 80s, I scorned uncool floppy hats and sun cream. Every Monday at the then Caucasian-exclusive Rustenberg Girls' High, we’d appraise the depth of each other’s tans, conscientiously worked at over the weekend. Use of baby oil and tin foil to accelerate the process was not uncommon.
The new sunsmart generation: slathering on the sunblock in the shade at Clifton 4th beach this summer
What were we thinking?
Well, apart from being 15 and not quite believing we were ever going to have to face wrinkles or death, somehow in the 80s the message about sunshine’s dark side just hadn’t had enough time to sink in yet.
Medical research had warned long before then that too much sunlight increased the risk of premature aging and skin cancer, but, like all unwelcome advice from science (look at smoking and global warming), there was a lag period before it started to permeate the public’s sun-dazed consciousness.
The myth of the “healthy tan” has proved particularly difficult to erase from the lay person’s mind, especially the South African mind: for decades we've considered the carefree outdoor summer lifestyle our birthright.
Also, in the mid-80s when the Antarctic ozone “hole” was discovered – the most sobering evidence that the earth was losing its natural UV-protection – the stats weren’t nearly as worrisome as they are now:
- Skin cancer is SA's most common cancer, with about 20 000 new cases and 700 deaths annually.
- Risk increases the lighter your skin tone, but anyone can get skin cancer. Rates among black South Africans are rising, and it often goes undetected for longer on darker skins. Melanoma, the most deadly kind of skin cancer, is more likely in blacks where the skin is lighter - such as on the soles of the feet, the palms of hands and the fingernail beds.
- Your skin is most vulnerable to damage before age 18: two blistering burns as a child or teenager dramatically increases your risk of getting skin cancer later in life.
Not too late for positive action
There are very few paler-skinned South Africans now at the “later-in-life” stage who can remember how many blistering burns they had – not because it's a long time since they were 18, but because they had countless blistering burns as kids. I recall how, nearly every Monday morning in summer, I used to sit in first period and idly pick at the sunburn blisters on the tops of my ears.
So the stats aren’t great, particularly for people like myself – pale skinned, pale-eyed and with memories of many red, blistered summers. But does this mean our gooses are cooked, so to speak?
Not necessarily, says the Cancer Association of South Africa (CANSA), as long as we get seriously proactive.
Even if you had a lot of sun damage in your youth, it does still make a difference to your risk profile to follow all the basic sun-sensible rules.
But that’s not enough: you need to be intimately acquainted with your skin’s blemishes; preferably, you need a partner or friend who is too. And, especially if you’re at high risk, you need to get your skin checked regularly by a professional.
Spot that Spot
As part of its annual SunSmart campaign, CANSA runs “Spot the Spot” beach “clinics” at many of the country’s most popular beaches, where a dermatologist will check your skin and advise you on whether you need to have any worrying spots examined further.
This is quick, free and painless, and done in a friendly, unclinical atmosphere in a tent: you simply pitch up in your skimpy beach attire and present yourself for inspection.
UK visitor Michelle gets her tan scanned in the CANSA tent
A couple of weekends ago I took my pale and interesting self and all its dodgy spots down to the CANSA clinic at Clifton 4th beach, where no fewer than three dermatologists were on hand to scrutinise my skin. For this they use an unscary little magnifying device, with which they peer at anything that bothers them. They were not particularly bothered by any of my blemishes, and sent me off feeling relieved and a little foolish for being too chicken to get checked before.
This will be the experience of the majority of people lining up for their "skin scan"; but in the course of the morning, the doctors had seen two potentially deadly cases, who were urged in the strongest terms to go for a diagnostic exam without delay.
The advice I received was gravely delivered too: stay out of the sun, wear sun screen religiously - factor 50 on the face is appropriate, not overkill - and see a dermatologist for a proper checkup once a year. This goes for anyone with Type 1, 2 or 3 skin. That includes pretty much all of us who've ever had a sunburn.
The last few free clinics are being held this weekend:
Cape Town beach clinics (11:00-14:00):
- Sat 17 January: Seapoint Swimming Pool
- Sun 18 January: Seapoint Swimming Pool
17 January: Umhlanga Beach, 11h00 - 13h00.
For more info on clinics and SunSmart in your area, contact CANSA toll free on 0800 22 66 22 during office hours.
(Olivia Rose-Innes, Health24, December 2008)
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SunSmart Press release, CANSA, 2008.
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