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Skin cancer – you’re not just at risk during summer

Whilst we often complain about grey winter days, winter sun can bring hidden dangers – especially for those enjoying winter sports.

According to Cancer Research UK there is strong evidence to show that overexposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation is the main preventable cause of skin cancers – both malignant melanoma and non- melanoma skin cancers (NMSC). Sunbeds produce artificial UV radiation, but the sun is the principal source of natural UV radiation. A study published in 2011 estimated that 86% of melanomas in the UK (around 11,100 cases) every year are linked to too much exposure to sunlight and sunbed use.

 Among NMSCs, an estimated 50-70% of squamous cell carcinomas (SCCs) and 50-90% of basal cell carcinomas (BCCs) in fair-skinned people are caused by UV radiation. The risk of melanoma is most strongly linked to intermittent sun exposure, and non-melanoma skin cancers (BCCs and SCCs) are both linked to chronic sun exposure. The risk of BCCs is also linked to intermittent sun exposure.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has developed an international UV index to reflect the strength of the sun’s rays or level of UV radiation at the earth’s surface. The level of UV radiation gives an indication of the risk of burning or adverse health effects – the greater the UV index value, the greater the potential for damage and the less time it takes for this damage to occur – and it’s not just strong summer sun that can cause problems.

The strength of UV radiation reaching the earth’s surface is affected by several factors, such as time of day (the sun being strongest at solar noon), time of year (the sun being strongest in the summer) and latitude (being strongest in locations nearer the equator).

winter sun

While these factors are well known, certain others are not. Altitude, for example, can play a significant part; according to Cancer research UK figures, spending time at high altitude – such as when skiing – increases UV exposure by about  15% for every 1000 metres. At an altitude between 9,000 and 10,000 feet, UV radiation may be up to 45% more intense than at sea level.

There is also the issue of reflection. About 15% of sunburning rays are reflected back from sand, 10% from concrete and 5-10% from water (depending on choppiness). But snow can reflect up to 85% of the UV radiation that hits it, significantly increasing a person’s risk. Even cloudy skies are no guarantee of protection. 30-40% of UV radiation can still penetrate through cloud cover; if half the sky is covered in clouds, 80% of UV radiation still shines through.

Per Hall, Clinical Director at Check4Cancer and a pioneer in the early detection of melanoma, comments: “People are generally quite aware of the risk of hot summer sun, partly because during summer we tend to expose more skin and can feel the sun’s heat on it. Damaging UV radiation cannot be felt on the skin, however, and while we tend to wrap up against the cold in winter, our faces can end up being exposed for long periods, during which serious damage can occur. This is especially the case if we are involved in winter sports – perhaps at high altitude, with UV being reflected back at us by the surface of the snow – but even regular winter walks can raise our risk. We need to think about proper skin protection in all circumstances, all year round.”

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