Skin is the human’s largest organ and the first on the frontline when we expose ourselves to the elements. Our region’s climate has made sun damage a prevalent skin affliction; the Cancer Association of South Africa (CANSA) says South Africa remains the country with the second highest incidence of skin cancer in the world.

A UP student is susceptible to sun damage, especially when Pretoria’s particular climate is brought into consideration. Gauteng’s proximity to the Tropic of Capricorn means summer sunlight is direct, and the seasonal heavy rain clouds are not adequate shielding from UV rays, and the province’s dry winter offers little protective cloud cover. Students’ pedestrian habits and varied daytime responsibilities expose them to the sun directly. Acccording to CANSA, “for every 300 meter rise in altitude, there is a 4% increase in direct UV radiation.” This means that people living in Pretoria and surrounding Highveld areas are more prone to sun damage, compared to coastal areas, due to the high altitude on the Highveld.

Sunblock is not worn habitually on a large scale by students. This is because the product can be costly, time consuming to apply, and it is not always comfortable.

Misconceptions about sun damage contribute to people failing to prevent it as it is thought that being naturally darker or avoiding actual sunburn is effective enough. A person is susceptible to sun damage regardless of race, and damage is able to build up over time. Dr Ranella Hirsch, a Boston dermatologist and past president of the American Society of Cosmetic Dermatology and Aesthetic Surgery explains because people are more heterogenous that some may assume, dark complexion does not guarantee safety from the sun because you could have genes making you more susceptible to skin caner.

According to CANSA, “At least 20 000 South Africans are diagnosed annually with non-melanoma skin cancers, and approximately 1500 are diagnosed with melanoma”. Melanoma, according to Mayo Clinic, “develops in the cells (melanocytes) that produce melanin, the pigment that gives your skin its colour.” Melanoma can also form in your eyes and, rarely, in internal organs, such as your intestines. Melanoma can be identified as growths that resemble moles, and are usaully black or brown in colour. According to Mayo Clinic the risk of developing melanoma is increased by the exposure to UV radiation from direct sunlight or tanning lamps and beds. Melanoma is considered the most dangerous kind of skin cancer, because the risk of it happening later in life is increased if excessive UV radiation happens during your developmental years.

The prevalence of skin ailments caused by sun damage has influenced the direction of research at UP. The Department of Plant Sciences’ Professor Namrita Lall’s research team utilises medicinal indigenous plant life to develop cosmeceuticals (cosmetic beauty products that include pharmaceutical benefits). UP’s Institute of Sports Research at the High Performance Centre includes warnings against excessive exposure to direct sunlight to encourage healthy exercise practices.

Prevention is ideal. Sunscreen products are recommended, but a concerted effort to avoid excessive direct sun exposure is effective. Any skin irregularities should be monitored and examined. Skin is a helpful indicator of the body’s health, so we should take care of it the way it tries to care for us.

Photo: Shaun Sproule

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