“Some people are very receptive to information about skin cancer,” says Dr Nick Levell, consultant dermatologist. “Usually, they're the ones who have had personal experience of it. Other people can be harder to reach.”

The trouble is, says Levell, so much health advice is given out on a regular basis that it can be fatiguing — and confusing. “People have trouble filtering the information they receive,” he admits. “Take skin cancer. One day they'll read that vitamin D in sunlight is good for you. The next, they'll read that too much sunlight is bad for you.” (The fact is, says Levell, that too much of anything is bad for you.)




The stark reality, however, is this: instances of skin cancer are growing in the UK. According to figures from Cancer Research, malignant melanoma incidence rates have increased by 360 per cent in Britain since the late 1970s. “Growth in skin cancer is linked to the increase in holidays abroad,” says Levell. “It's also linked to the ageing population. As we get older, our chances of developing skin cancer rise... so that's a difficult message to get across to young people who think: 'OK: I'll worry about it later, then' — although young adults are at risk of melanoma.”

There are many types of skin cancer, but it's easier to think of them under two headings: melanoma and non-melanoma. Melanoma can spread to other organs in the body and be fatal; while non-melanoma is common, particularly in older people, and develops slowly. Signs to look out for are moles which change shape or bleed, or any changes on the skin that grow steadily bigger. “Watch  for anything that is different or new,” says Levell.




The increase in skin cancer is having an impact on the NHS. “Patients need to see consultants who can make an accurate diagnosis about their condition as quickly as possible, but there are only around 800 dermatologists in the UK,” says Levell. “And that does put a huge strain on the system.” Which is why it's so important to get messages across about prevention and the importance of early diagnosis. “We have to find ways to deliver health education without patronising or talking down to people,” says Levell.

Covering up with light clothing is the most effective way to decrease your risk if you are going out in the sun; but if you do want to expose your skin, use a high-factor sunscreen. Try to stay out of the sun when its rays are strongest, however, and avoid getting sun burnt. “If you are losing your hair, then it's a good idea to wear a hat in the sun,” says Levell. “If you have fair skin, blue eyes, fair hair or red hair, or freckles, then these are all factors which bring risk — particularly if you have someone with skin cancer in your family.”

The sunscreen factsheet

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