Time outdoors is essential for your physical and mental wellbeing. Being outdoors in the daytime can help reduce stress and help you get your recommended allowance of vitamin D, which is essential for your brain and immune system. However, outdoor activities do come with some risks, particularly in the form of ultraviolet (UV) light, which can potentially cause skin cancer. Fortunately, you can easily protect your skin and enjoy the outdoors without excessive exposure to cancer-causing UV light.

Why Should I Protect My Skin?

Singapore’s skin cancer rates are on the rise. A 2021 review of skin cancer studies suggests that the local prevalence of different skin cancers—namely basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and melanoma—has risen year over year since 1968, making skin cancers one of the most prevalent forms of cancer in the country.

On the surface, the prevalence of skin cancers is remarkably low in Singapore, with around 7.4 cases per 100,000 people per year—much lower than in most Western countries. However, when looking at the prevalence of skin cancers among lighter-skinned ethnic Chinese Singaporeans, the rate rises to 18.9 cases per 100,000. Moreover, not even darker-skinned ethnic Malays and Indians are necessarily safe from skin cancer risks, as prevalence rates have also continued to increase in these populations.

While the last thorough survey of Singapore skin cancer rates was in 2006, the increase in demand for skin cancer surgery suggests that rates may have risen since then. Today, there is a growing number of head and neck surgeons who specialise in diagnosing, surgically treating, and providing follow-up care for patients with skin cancer, particularly those with cancers affecting the head and neck region.

What Can I Do To Protect My Skin?

1. Limit Your Sun Exposure

Some exposure to the sun is beneficial but the limits may be far lower than you think. Multiple factors determine the “safe” amount of sunlight, including skin exposure, genetics, age, weather, and latitude. In a country as close to the equator as Singapore, lighter-skinned individuals may have to limit their direct exposure to sunlight to just under 10 minutes, though this could be extended to around 30 minutes or so in favourable conditions.

2. Seek Shade During Peak UV Times

The sun’s UV rays are at their most intense between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., so it makes sense to avoid the sun at these times no matter your skin pigmentation. As a rule of thumb, it’s time to seek shade when your shadow gets shorter than you are. Get your fix of vitamin D only before and after this critical window.

3. Use Sunscreen

Regardless of your skin pigmentation, it’s a good idea to wear sunscreen whenever you expect to spend more than just a few minutes outside. Apply sunscreen to any exposed skin, even on cloudy days. Pay close attention to your neck, ears, and the tops of your feet. If you need to be outdoors for an extended time, reapply sunscreen every two hours.

Unfortunately, not all sunscreens will provide you with adequate protection from Singapore’s equatorial sun. A broad-spectrum sunscreen that protects from both UVA (rays associated with sunburns) and UVB (rays associated with premature skin ageing) is ideal. Choose a product that has a rating of at least PA+++ and SPF 30. If you sweat a lot, a water-resistant brand may be needed.

4. Use Protective Clothing

A wide-brimmed hat, long-sleeved shirt, and trousers will give you effective coverage from the sun. As mentioned earlier, head and neck cancers are becoming more prevalent, so it’s important to cover these areas during peak sunlight hours.

Though any clothing is better than nothing, UV light can still penetrate most regular clothes. For even better sun protection, look for garments with a UPF (ultraviolet protection factor) rating. A good pair of UV-protective sunglasses is also nice to have, as they can protect your eyes and the fragile skin surrounding them from sun damage.

5. Don’t Use Tanning Beds!

Full-body tans are often considered to be a status symbol in developed Western countries, as it implies that one has the time to lounge by the beach. Unfortunately, tans are, in fact, an indicator of skin damage. While occasional tans are generally safe, frequent sunning sessions or visits to a tanning salon will speed up skin ageing and sharply increase the odds of developing skin cancers. If you want to look tanned, consider a self-tanning product instead.

6. Be Wary Of The Beach

Sand and water reflect and scatter UV rays. This means that you can still get a dangerous dose of UV light even in the shade. Wear protective clothing if you can, and keep applying sunscreen as needed.

7. Check Your Skin Often

Like all cancers, skin cancers are easily treated when detected early. Learn the signs of skin cancer and immediately get in touch with a qualified medical professional if you see unusual spots or lumps on your skin. If you have a spouse, check each other for skin irregularities regularly, especially in areas that are difficult to see on your own, such as the back, scalp, and behind the ears.

Enjoy The Sunshine Responsibly

Contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to avoid the sun entirely if you’re at risk of skin cancer. Educating yourself and your loved ones about the relative dangers and taking the right precautions makes it possible to enjoy the sunshine and all its benefits without undue risks to your health.

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