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Understanding the Risks of Skin Cancer from Playing Golf

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As an outdoor activity, playing golf has a wide range of health benefits for your body. A deceptively leisurely sport, golf is helpful for staying fit by losing weight and body fat, as well as keeping social. With the average walking distance of a standard golf course being between five to seven kilometres, playing 18 rounds a few times a week is an optimal form of endurance exercise for your heart. Plus, if you carry your own clubs, you'll improve your muscle tone as well. 

But while your eye is trained on the final hole, you may be at risk from the danger above: the sun. 

Golf-Specific Risks for Skin Cancer

Golfers spend an average of 4 hours outdoors for each round of golf and can receive up to 8 times more UV radiation exposure than those who do not play. Hence, golfers are 2.5 times more likely to develop skin cancer during their lifetime. 

Findings from a survey of 400 players from the University of South Australia revealed that one in four golf participants had received a skin cancer diagnosis. The results from this data suggest that undertaking several cancer removal surgeries has become the norm

Considering Australia has some of the highest rates of skin cancer in the world, these statistics are concerning.

Definition of Skin Cancer

Skin cancer is an uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells on the skin. When skin is under pressure and exposed to UV radiation from the sun, it becomes damaged. Skin cancer lesions usually take the form of an irregularly growing mole and are most common in fair-skinned men over 50. In fact, according to the Cancer Council, around two in three Australians will develop either melanoma or non-melanoma skin cancer by the time they are 70.

Types of Skin Cancer

In order of the least to most common skin cancers in Australia, there are three types: melanoma, squamous cell carcinoma and basal cell carcinoma. Each of these skin cancers is prominent among golfers, so it's important to recognise the difference to protect your health.

About two-thirds of skin cancer diagnoses in Australia are basal cell carcinoma (BCC), making it the most common of the three types. Often found in areas of the body that experience high sun exposure, mostly on the neck and face, BCC develops on the outermost layer of the skin and appears as pink pearl-like bumps. Basal cell carcinoma sometimes breaks down (ulcerates), bleeds or becomes inflamed.

Alternatively, squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) comprises about 33% of skin cancer diagnoses. It is more invasive than its non-melanoma counterpart — SCCs can grow quickly over weeks or months and, if left untreated, can invade other parts of the body. 

Squamous cell carcinoma typically looks like a thick, red, crusted spot or a rapidly growing lump that may bleed and become inflamed. These spots are often tender to the touch.

Melanoma is the most aggressive and dangerous form of skin cancer. It can develop from a mole that becomes cancerous or from damaged skin cells and can grow anywhere on the body. Usually, melanoma develops on the face, chest and back in men and on the legs in women. Symptoms of melanoma include large brown spots with a diameter larger than 7mm, moles that change colour, size or texture or those that have an asymmetrical border.

Common Symptoms of Skin Cancer for Golfers

Even if you spend most of your time playing golf under the trees, the long duration of the game will most likely result in sunburn on some part of your body. A sunburn is actually your skin cells in trauma. Repetitive sunburn can damage the DNA in cells, making them abnormal, and so lead to cancer if not repaired by the body repeatedly over time.

If you do get sunburnt, it's best to let your skin heal naturally and assist the healing process by staying hydrated with water and fruit, as well as having a cold shower, all without picking your blisters. For more serious cases of sunburn, natural remedies like aloe vera lotion and manuka honey are great ways to restore hydration to the skin. Otherwise, there are medicated creams that can soothe itchiness and pain.

It's also highly common for golfers to get skin cancer around their eyes, due to the reflection of UV rays on reflective surfaces like the green.

Prevention of Skin Cancer for Golfers

Fortunately, managing the risk factors of skin cancer involves a variety of easy sun protection strategies when going golfing. If possible, avoid playing during the hours of the day when UV exposure is at its peak — from 10 am to 3 pm — and, of course, seek shade as often as possible.

Protective Clothing for Golfers

Choosing the correct clothing for playing sports is a tactical decision, for your performance and also for your health and well-being. As a general rule of thumb, research shows that the most comprehensive sun-safe clothing includes:

  • Dark or bright colours, as they absorb more UV rays than lighter shades, and thus less radiation absorbed by your skin.
  • Densely woven cloth (such as denim, thick cotton and linen) since it allows less light to penetrate the fabric.
  • Shiny materials like polyester can offer UV protection by reflecting radiation.
  • Loose-fitting clothing, because its limited ability to stretch inhibits radiation from passing through to the skin.
  • Good skin coverage, like collared shirts and long sleeves.

A worthwhile investment is UPF clothing. These are pants and long-sleeved shirts that cover large surface areas of your skin and are measured on an ultraviolet protection factor scale, much like SPF for sunscreen. The UPF rating for clothes measures the amount of UV rays that the clothing allows to reach the sun. Again, similar to sunscreen, a rating of 30 or above is considered good sun protection. 

To compare, a normal t-shirt has a UPF rating of about 7.

Equally important are your accessories: hats and sunglasses. A wide-brimmed hat (not a baseball cap) cuts the amount of glare in your eyes and blocks some scattered and reflected light. Studies show that wide-brimmed hats reduce the amount of UV radiation reaching your eyes by 50%.

Likewise, high-rated sunglasses that are close to your face are great for sport, particularly those that wrap around your head. Sunglasses that meet the Australian Standard for eye protection of 2 or above absorb more than 95% of UV rays.

On the other hand, polarised sunglasses reduce glare and make visibility easier on a sunny day, but do not increase the level of UV protection.

Sunscreen and Sun Protection for Golfers

As mentioned before, the SPF (sun protection factor) of sunscreen should be at least 15 to receive proper protection. Since SPF is a relative measure of how long it will take your skin to burn, optimal sun protection in Australia's climate is SPF 30 and above. This means that it will take 30 times longer for your skin to burn.

As a result, it's important to reapply your sunscreen every two hours. A good idea is to apply sunscreen before you get dressed. It will ensure full body coverage and allow the sunscreen to sink into your skin before you go out into the sun.

Sunscreen primarily protects your skin from low-reaching UVB rays. Therefore, use a broad-spectrum sunscreen to protect yourself from the more penetrating UVA radiation as well. 

If you know you'll be golfing for several hours (a quick game is hardly a good game), consider zinc-based sunscreen. You may have a ghostly appearance, but it's generally considered more effective than chemical solutions for holistic UVA and UVB protection.

Booking Regular Skin Checks at Your Local SunDoctors Clinic

Early detection is key to diagnosing and treating all skin cancers. It is recommended that people individually check their skin, moles and spots every three months, and receive an annual professional skin check. 

At SunDoctors, we offer quick, simple, and non-invasive skin checks to all Australians. Our skin cancer clinics are in New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia and Victoria. You won't need a referral for your appointment at SunDoctors — our doctors are GPs with special training in skin cancer detection, management and treatment, so you will still receive the best possible care.

usual full-body skin check with our highly trained, experienced and friendly doctors lasts 15 minutes and is pain-free. 

female skin cancer doctor consulting with a client

Golf-Specific Resources for Skin Cancer Education and Support

At SunDoctors, we are committed to skin cancer treatment and prevention. Feel free to call our friendly team for tailored advice and information about our services and how to reduce your skin cancer risk.

Feeling shy? Many questions, concerns and comments about skin cancer protection are available on our Frequently Asked Questions page. Our FAQs cover everything from appointments and procedures to general skin cancer queries, prevention techniques, and specialised information for children and pregnant women.

No one wants the risk of skin cancer to stop your fun and recreation. Book a skin check now with SunDoctors to begin your journey of protecting your skin so you can continue to golf without the looming stress of skin cancer.

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