The sun is key to our existence. Without it, the Earth would be destroyed. We all need the sun; it is our ally, but too much of it can turn it into one of our worst enemies. Solar rays give life, but they also take it away if this radiation is abused.
SUR talked to specialists in dermatology about the benefits and dangers of the sun and asked them for recommendations to prevent burns or, which is more serious, skin cancer which, if not detected in time, can cause a patient's death. This is especially the case with melanoma, which is twice as prevalent in Malaga than elsewhere in Spain; there are 20 cases for every 100,000 inhabitants per year. The incidence of basal cell and squamous cell skin cancers is also higher than average in Malaga.
Skin tumours are the type that is increasing most, but 90 per cent of them could have been prevented if exposure to the sun had been controlled. "It's a matter of common sense," says Leandro Martínez, the Andalusian president of the Andalusian section of the Spanish Academy of Dermatology and Venereology and director of the Dermatology unit at the Malaga regional hospital (formerly known as the Carlos Haya hospital).
He says we need to protect ourselves from the sun with creams, gels or sprays, which should be applied every two hours when we are on the beach, by the swimming pool or outside in the open air. It should be remembered that although these products are water-resistent, their protection becomes weaker after being in the sea or pool, so it is a good idea to put more on then, and also if you sweat profusely.
If, for example, someone uses a product which is Factor 30, it means they are 30 times more protected than if they don't put any cream on. However, these products reduce the impact of the sun but do not provide immunity from its effects. Special care is needed with children; their skin is more sensitive and therefore they burn more easily. It is always advisable to apply a product which is at least Factor 50 to children.
"Beauty lies in the shade," says Leandro Martínez, because we should all take shelter beneath a sunshade on the beach or cover up when the sun's rays are strongest and there is more ultraviolet radiation. It is best to avoid the sun between midday and 4pm.
"It is best to always look for shade, even when you are doing sport," he says. It is also important to wear a cap or hat and use approved sunglasses.
Dr Martínez says we should forget about the idea that beauty means being tanned and that a tan is associated with improved health. He says people who want to be tanned all year round and sunbathe continually or, when that isn't possible, use tanning beds, are addicts; they suffer from a disorder called tanorexia, and that increases the risk of skin cancer.
Tablets as an extra
There are tablets which can be taken to prevent sun damage to the skin, but Dr Martínez says these should be seen as a complement to protective creams.
"Don't be fooled. The oral capsules have a function, but they should be taken in addition to using sun creams, because otherwise you will have problems with the sun," he explains.
Enrique Herrera Ceballos, the head of dermatology and venereology at the Clínico hospital and a professor at Malaga university, points out that as well as the carcinogenic element, too much exposure to the sun also has a negative immunosuppressive effect and contributes to premature ageing of the skin, which manifests itself in the form of wrinkles and marks. Also, the solar rays can cause photosensitivity and allergic or toxic reactions, either on their own or in conjunction combined with medication someone may be taking.
Dermatologists say that the skin has a memory. This means that the more sun it receives in childhood and adolescence, the higher the probability of suffering skin cancer as an adult. That's why it is so important to reduce youngsters' exposure to the sun. It is advisable for sports activities in schools to take place in the shade if they can't be done indoors. Even though young people in general are aware of the need for sun protection, barely 20 per cent of them use it, says Leandro Martínez.
Although excessive exposure to the sun is associated with leisure time, holidays and the summer, some professions carry a greater risk of sunburn and skin cancer because they involve working outside. These include farming, fishing, construction and elite sports. All these professionals should take precautionary measures and use sun protection products to reduce the risk of melanoma and basal cell (the most common) and squamous cell cancers.
Melanoma is characterised by a mole which changes shape, colour and size. If it is detected at an early stage the cure rate is very high, but if not then it can be fatal. Basal cell cancer is like a small wound which doesn't heal (it is most common in older people), while squamous cell appears as very noticeable and fleshy growths, often on the lips or ears. Anyone with even the slightest doubt about a skin cancer should see their doctor to have it checked so that a carcinoma can either be ruled out or confirmed. Early diagnosis is vital because it means the patient can be treated in time and cured.
The sun has a negative side, but also a positive one. "Solar rays are essential to synthesise vitamin D. Without sunshine people would suffer from rickets and wouldn't live," says Enrique Herrera. He also says the sun is necessary to prevent osteogenesis (weak bones).
Dr Martínez agrees that solar radiation has benefits for humans, as long as the exposure is moderate and controlled. Another point to stress is that the sun favours the secretion of endorphins, substances which make people feel well and more energetic. This can be seen from the fact that most people are happier when they are outside, taking physical exercise, on a sunny day rather than a cloudy one.
As we have seen, the sun is essential to us, but it must be in the right amount. We couldn't live without it, but if we expose ourselves to it too much, the risk of skin cancer is very high.