Sunburn might hurt, but it's unlikely to kill you.
Millions are sporting suntans/sunburn following the Hottest Weekend in British History. Beaches were crammed (Brighton looked something like the French Riviera), and scantily-clad crowds wandered around towns and cities.
Yet this rare pleasure was in danger of being blocked out by warnings about the alleged risks of skin cancer. Religious cultures might urge people to cover up for the sake of their virtue; we are called upon to cover up for the sake of our health.
Earlier in the summer, after a young student died of a malignant melanoma, doctors claimed that her cancer could have been triggered by just one day’s severe sunburn. Yet this sunburn=cancer formula finds a mixed reception in the evidence.
Scares about the sun’s rays tend to focus on the threat of malignant melanomas, which account for the majority of skin cancer deaths. But these cancers are only tenuously linked to sunburn – many are found on areas of the body not commonly exposed to the sun, such as the soles of the feet and the buttocks. They also have a similar incidence in countries like Japan, where there is little history of sunbathing.
Malignant melanomas account for less than 10 percent of all skin cancer cases. Around 90 percent of skin cancers in Britain are either basal-cell or squamous cell carcinomas, which are strongly linked to sun exposure and found on the head, neck and arms – the areas of the body most likely to burn. Fortunately, these cancers tend to grow slowly and are fairly easy to treat (1).
Overall, malignant melanoma remains a relatively rare condition in the UK: in 2001, it killed 856 men, which is equivalent to 30 per million of the population, compared with a rate of 712 per million for lung cancer (2).
Yet if you were to listen to the Department of Health (DoH), you might think that a cave was the only safe place to spend the summer. On the ‘sunsafe’ section of its website it advises a wide-brimmed hat; ‘fabrics that cover your arms and your legs’ (preferably dark coloured and made from a thick weave); and wrap-around sunglasses (3). Wearing a burqa might be a simpler way to achieve the same effect.
If you must expose your skin, says the DoH, only use sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or more, and don’t stay out any longer than you would without it – and all swimsuits or wetsuits should be sun-protected.
There is a moralistic underpinning to these warnings, in the notion that apparently irresponsible sun-worshippers have to be told what to wear, where to sit, what factor of suncream to use (and how often to apply it). One UK pharmacy enforced an ‘ethical ban’ on suncream under factor 15, deciding that consumers could not be trusted to choose for themselves (4). Some campaigners argue that the fashion of tans is the problem, wishing that the public could realise that ‘pale is beautiful’.
When adult sunbathers appear not to be heeding the warnings, campaigners go for a softer target – their kids. Parents might throw caution to the wind where their own skin is concerned, but warnings that play on the vulnerability of children are more likely to hit home.
And the main moral is: never think you are sufficiently protected. Cream is not enough; even wearing clothes is not enough. Researchers recently raised concerns that suntan lotion could lull people into a false sense of security, and encourage them to stay in the sun all day. ‘Complacency’ is the reprimand that crops up again and again. Never relax, never think you are done preparing for the sun.
Of course, British streets and beaches sported their fare share of lobster reds last weekend. There are commonsense reasons for applying suntan lotion and wearing floppy hats: sunburn hurts, heatstroke makes you feel sick. But the sun is extremely unlikely to kill you, so top up your tans if you like.
spiked-issue: Sun, sea and scaremongering
Enjoy your moment in the sun, by Mick Hume, The Times (London), 28 July 2003
(1) The dangers of ‘safe sun’, by
Dr Michael Fitzpatrick and Bríd Hehir
(2) Enjoy your moment in the sun, by Mick Hume, The Times (London), 28 July 2003
(3) Sun safety: what you need to know, DoH website
(4) Chemist trumpets ‘ethical ban’ on low factor sunscreen, Guardian, 15 July 2003
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