The impacts of climate change have pervaded all aspects of our modern life, but the rise in global temperature means that our skin is at more risk now than ever. Considering Australia already has some of the highest rates of skin cancer in the world, it's important to understand how to manage the repercussions of global warming and care for our largest organ.
Climate Change and UV Radiation
Since national records began in 1910, Australia has warmed by nearly 1.5 °C on average. Most warming has occurred since 1950, and every decade since has been warmer than the previous one. The decreasing air quality and surge in the frequency of heatwaves and wildfires are visible signs of climate change in action.
The issue with climate change is the uncertainty it brings. While very high temperatures may prompt sun avoidance (like staying indoors), people also tend to increase their exposure to UV rays by wearing less covering clothing on hot days. The latter, in particular, increases our risk of developing sun cancer.
The ozone layer in the stratosphere is a vital filter for ultraviolet radiation, as it shields us from Ultraviolet C and B rays. But, as the ozone layer has become damaged due to ozone-depleting substances from human-made greenhouse gases, fossil fuels and air pollution, Ultraviolet B levels have increased. UVB radiation and UVC radiation are the most dangerous forms of ultraviolet radiation since they have a lot of energy. They are the main causes of sunburns, skin cancer and melanoma. Usually, UVC is completely blocked by the ozone layer, but due to climate change, it is filtering in.
Fortunately, compliance with the Montreal Protocol is working to return the ozone layer to mid-1980s levels, particularly above Australia. The Montreal Protocol, proposed in 1987, was a landmark international environmental agreement to reduce the use of harmful chemicals to repair and protect the ozone layer. While signs of success remain steady, it is important to remain vigilant and take steps to protect our skin, as solving climate change is a slow process.
The Rise in Skin Cancer Rates
By 2030, the progress made by the Montreal Protocol on the ozone level is believed to have prevented roughly two million cases of skin cancer each year, according to the UN Environment Program.
Nonetheless, ozone depletion has contributed to higher rates of skin cancer since the 1970s in Australia. Two-thirds of all Australians will have been diagnosed with some form of skin cancer by the time they are 70, and the correlation has risen accordingly alongside global temperatures.
How Climate Factors Impact Melanoma
Australia has some of the highest cases of melanoma, the deadliest skin cancer, in the world. Between 1982 and 2010, the incidence of melanoma increased by 60% in Australia.
Melanoma develops in melanocyte cells, which produce melanin, the pigment that is responsible for skin colour. Overexposure to UV radiation causes the cells to mutate within melanocyte DNA, which triggers uncontrolled cellular growth and, ultimately, melanoma.
While several variables are risk factors for developing melanoma, it does not help that higher ultraviolet levels add greater pressure to our skin cells.
Other factors that increase skin cancer risk include:
- Unprotected UV exposure during outdoor activities, such as work or leisure.
- A high number of existing moles, growths or freckles on the body.
- Having fair skin and light eye and hair colour.
- A family history of melanoma or other skin cancers.
- A history of tanning and sunburn.
- A weakened immune system.
- A previous diagnosis of melanoma or skin cancer.
- A history of cancers, such as breast cancer, prostate cancer and others.
Keep Your Skin Protected!
The best way to stay sun safe in a world affected by climate change is to adopt thorough but simple skincare routines.
- Use a good sunscreen with holistic coverage: SunDoctors recommends one with an SPF rating of 30 or above. The higher the number, the stronger the protection.
- Apply the sunscreen correctly: Adults should apply at least a teaspoon of sunscreen to each limb approximately 20 minutes before sun exposure. About half a teaspoon should go onto your face, neck and ears. You should reapply every 2–4 hours and more frequently if swimming or sweating!
- Sunglasses: Your eyes are also vulnerable to harmful UV rays, so make sure you wear ones with UVR protection.
- Appropriate protective clothing: Collared shirts, long sleeves, fabric with a denser weave — these types of apparel will offer more coverage as they limit the amount of light hitting your skin.
- Stay hydrated: A pro tip for Australian summers is to freeze your water bottle beforehand!
- Treat your sunburns: When showering, use cooler water and a less irritating soap. Keep well hydrated, as we tend to lose a lot of fluids as the body treats burns.
Don't be fooled by cloudy days, either. Ultraviolet rays still reach the Earth's surface when it is overcast, so be sure to keep up the necessary precautions to keep your skin safe.
Additionally, another helpful fact to know is the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) allows tax deductions on sunscreen if your work requires you to endure long periods of sun exposure.
SunDoctors' Commitment to Skin Cancer Prevention
Another important part of sun safety is to monitor your skin. If you notice any new moles, or if your existing spots have changed in shape, colour or size, it may be a sign of skin cancer. The best way to get on top of any potential skin cancers and treat them successfully is to have a professional skin check.
Every SunDoctors clinic has extensive expertise in skin cancer detection and offers comprehensive skin checks. Our 15-minute skin checks are head to toe, including areas that do not see the sun, and if necessary, your doctor will discuss and perform a procedure on any areas of concern. This may be done during a separate appointment.
As skin cancer is our sole area of expertise, every SunDoctors clinic is equipped with technology, equipment and a wealth of readily available resources that other practices may not have. This ensures that every session at SunDoctors is a comprehensive and efficient experience.
A Stress-Free Summer
Ultimately, there is a wealth of articles and research on the relationship between climate change and a higher rate of skin cancer diagnoses. A global issue like holes in the ozone layer sounds daunting and futile for regular people. Still, in regards to keeping your skin safe and healthy, practising sun safety is more important now than ever before.
For more information or to schedule a skin check for you or a loved one, get in touch with our friendly team at SunDoctors today!