Be Safe in the Sun
In Hong Kong's sweltering summer, it is vital to protect the skin from sun exposure. Yvonne Heavyside from The Family Zone covers the basics of sun protection to help your family have a safe, sunburnt free season.
Summer is upon us. Now is the time to remember to protect ourselves and our children from the sun's harmful ultraviolet light rays. Whilst some sun exposure is an important source of vitamin D, which is used for bone building, we have come to learn that too much sun can significantly increase the risk of skin cancer and premature ageing of the skin.
How the Sun causes so much damage
When ultra violet light rays (UVA and UVB) enter the skin, they damage the skin cells, causing visible and invisible injuries. Vigilance is especially needed in caring for children's skin because as much as 80% of one's lifetime exposure to the sun occurs during childhood. If a child gets sunburn early in life, there are more years for abnormal cells such as melanoma (the most dangerous kind of skin cancer) to possibly develop. Research has shown that six episodes of serious sunburn before the age of 18 doubles the risk of developing skin cancer as an adult. Moreover, children who are in the sun a lot get more moles, which may lead to melanoma. These can develop in any age group, including teenagers and young adults. The first sign of malignant melanoma may be the development of a multi coloured mole, which can occur on any part of the body. If not treated at an early stage, these fast growing tumours can quickly spread to other parts of the body.
Living in Hong Kong
Much has been written about the severe damage the sun has caused to people living in Australia, due to the thinning ozone layer. But how much at risk are we in Hong Kong? As we are living near the equator, we have a high risk of receiving more radiation from the sun, as it has a shorter path, thus increasing the possibility of developing melanoma. So how common are melanomas in Hong Kong? People with fairer skin, and those with a family history of melanoma, are more at risk. Whilst skin cancer occurs in all races, melanoma is less common amongst Chinese compared with their Western counterparts. However any mole has the potential to be cancerous, irrespective of ethnic background.
Moles are common in all age groups but changes in moles should always be taken seriously. The danger signs can be remembered by using the aid A-B-C-D-E:
• Asymmetry. Melanomas are often uneven in shape.
• Border. A jagged border rather than smooth is a warning.
• Colour. Look out for changes in colour such as darkening, fading, unusual mixtures or spillages.
• Diameter. Cancerous moles tend to be larger than 6mm, and growing.
• Elevation. Or increase in thickness of the mole.
Other factors which are important are itching, bleeding and pain. Always see a Doctor if any of the above changes occur.
Prevention, better than cure
The good news is that protecting skin from sunrays could prevent about 80% of skin cancers. As with all topics about health promotion, the best way you can teach children is by setting a good example! Whilst this is not always easy for sun loving westerners (and I confess, I'm the greatest of sinners!) we need to take example from people who have lived in hot climates all of their lives. By simply keeping out of the sun in the middle of the day, using sun protection and covering up the head and body, we can prevent sun damage.
Sunscreens and Sunblocks
The strength of sunscreen is measured by its sun protection factor (SPF). This is a laboratory measure, which grades the ability of a sunscreen to filter out UVB rays. The higher the SPF, the greater the protection. For example, SPF 15 provides 15 times the skin's natural protection. Looking at it another way, SPF 15 filters out 92% of ultraviolet radiation. Doctor's recommend using an SPF of at least 30. Always purchase a reputable brand sunscreen that has been through extensive testing before marketing. Here is a list of the 11 worst sunscreens for kids that you should keep out from your shopping basket and away from your youngsters.
What exactly should we look for when purchasing sun protection products? To be effective, sun protection must block and reflect both UVA and UVB of the ultra violet spectrum. UVA rays penetrate the skin at a deeper level and cause greater skin damage than UVB. Good sun creams will label UVA information on the tube. Some countries use a star rating, graded from one to four stars, with four stars offering the best protection. When reading the label, look for chemicals such as titanium dioxide or zinc oxide, which is proven to block UVA by reflecting or scattering the sun's rays. Also remember to check the "use by" date of the cream, and store sunscreens at a temperature less than 25 degrees C.
Babies and the Sun
A baby's skin is very sensitive and will quickly absorb the ingredients in sunscreen. If you need to use sunscreen for a baby, buy a cream which explicitly states that it is safe for babies under 6 months. It is generally better to keep babies under 6 months old out of the sun altogether. If your baby has to be exposed to the sun, protect him with clothing, umbrellas and a small amount of sun cream on the face. It's great to introduce babies to swimming early on but, to avoid the sun, do so early in the morning or at the end of the day. Unfortunately, this is when the mosquitoes are most active. Mosquito sprays are also harsh on babies' skin but there are a few products available, such as Vendome, which are gentler for babies.
Top Tips for the Sun
• Apply sunscreens liberally (1-1.5mm).
• Apply about half an hour before going out.
• Remember to reapply frequently and after swimming or excessive sweating.
• Remember to reapply if rubbing with a towel or wearing clothes.
• Apply even if overcast (especially in Hong Kong. I have seen many badly burnt babies over the years).
• Watch out for allergic reactions to sunscreens. Products containing Benzophenones and PBA's can cause this.
• Stay away from the midday sun.
• Sun exposure is more intense closer to the equator, in the mountains and during the summer.
• The sun's damaging effects are increased by reflection from water, white sand and snow.
• High risk areas are the lips, nose and shoulders.
• Remember to apply sun cream to the scalp if not wearing a hat.
• Don't forget to apply cream to your feet, especially if sun bathing.
• Encourage children to wear UV protective clothing. Make sure they offer high protection, even when wet, such as C-Tex TM. Some companies use removable tags on their garments, which can be sent for periodic testing to reaffirm the UPF (ultraviolet Protection Factor) rating.
• Stay away from windows. UVA can penetrate glass.
• Use sunglasses conforming to British standard 2724, or equivalent, to protect eyes from sun damage that is thought to speed cataract formation and degeneration of the retina. Baby Banz and Kids Banz products are available in Hong Kong.
Although this all seems a lot to remember, it is well worth being careful when it comes to sun protection. A sunburnt child will suffer real agony and will not enjoy the rest of the holiday. Finally, remember to encourage everyone to drink plenty of water to prevent dehydration. Have a great summer!