Sunlight damage continues hours after exposure

Melanin absorbs radiation from sunlight, and so reduces our risk of skin cancer – but energy cannot simply disappear, and until now little has been known about exactly how the energy is dissipated. The new research has now shown that it fuels a series of chemical reactions, causing a high-energy molecule within the skin to break apart which releases yet more energy, damaging the DNA. Tests showed that this damage within the skin was still taking place four hours after UV exposure had stopped.

Per Hall, Clinical Director at Check4Cancer and a pioneer in the early detection of skin cancer, comments: ‘Traditionally, those with fairer skin have been considered more at risk from sun damage, and therefore having a higher risk of contracting skin cancer. Statistically, this is still the case. But it now appears that melanin, the pigment responsible for darker skin tones, creates its own problems in ways that are only now beginning to be understood.’

The BBC report suggests that the findings may lead to better sunscreens, or even brand new measures that can help avert the additional damage after exposure. Dr Bav Shergill, of the British Association of Dermatologists, is quoted as saying: ‘The time it takes between sun exposure and the damage being completely done gives a window of opportunity in which new preventative tools could work.’

Meanwhile, the advice remains the same: minimise exposure to sunlight – especially between the hours of 11.00am and 3.00pm, when the radiation is strongest – and use high-factor sunscreen (eg SPF of 30, with good UVA protection) where skin exposure is unavoidable.

Despite this advice, we are repeatedly shown that not enough protection is being taken, as the example provided by a recent client of Check4Cancer (HSUK) demonstrates. Between May and August 2014 2014, HSUK implemented skin cancer screenings for Lend Lease – a world-leading international property and infrastructure group.

A large proportion of these employees work outside on construction sites, and so have prolonged exposure to sunlight – yet a survey within the company had revealed that a staggering 52% of them did not use protection against the effects of the sun, even though information on the subject and sunscreen were both widely available. This statistic flagged up the need for the company to address the issue more proactively – which they did in the form of full skin cancer checks, on site. 10% of those screened were referred for further tests.

Per Hall adds: ‘There may yet be improved products to protect us from the sun as a result of this new research, but until there are – and until we start using them – it perhaps indicates an even more urgent need for the proper, regular skin checks to be undertaken, especially in the workplace where such exposure and skin damage – so frequently associated with leisure time – is all too easily overlooked.’