Here comes the sun

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We’ve all heard about sun exposure and skin cancer and yet many people are still taking risks and there is some confusion in certain areas. Let’s review some of the key facts:

  • Repeated sun exposure increases the risk of skin cancer. The more sun-exposure, the higher the risk.
  • Skin cancer is the most common cancer in South Africa and in Australia.
  • Sunburn episodes (peeling, blistering, redness, pain) add to the risk.
  • Sun exposure during childhood is especially dangerous (mainly because the damage has more time/years to lead to cancer).

So what should we do:

  • Stay in the shade whenever possible.
  • Wear cover-up clothing and hats.
  • Use sunscreen with an SPF of at least 15 (apply 20 minutes before going outdoors and re-apply regularly).

But you knew that didn’t you? Here are some things you may have missed:

  • Darker skins have less risk of developing skin cancer, but not no-risk. Everyone can get skin cancer. Did you now that Bob Marley died of skin cancer at age 36?!
  • Tanning salons use UV-light and this can cause skin cancer. Avoid!
  • Sun exposure causes most of what we see as “skin ageing” (wrinkles, sagging, dryness, etc.). Stay in the shade and stay younger-looking.

What about the benefits of sun exposure? Ah, well, yes. Sun exposure prompts the skin to produce vitamin D, which helps bone development, mood and energy. In northern climates there may be some merit in advising people to deliberately seek non-burning moderate sun exposure for these reasons, but in South Africa it is likely that we all get enough (20 minutes a week is enough) sun exposure anyway.

Signs to worry about

Skin cancer usually develops as a new “mole” or as changes in an existing “mole”. You should be concerned about any mole that:

  • Grows or is more than 1cm wide.
  • Has irregular edges.
  • Bleeds.
  • Has varying colour.
  • Itches.

We are fortunate to live in a wonderfully sunny climate but this comes at a price so we all need to take care.

About the Author:

Colin was a medical practitioner (GP) from 1988 to 2000. Since then he has worked in the wellness field, designing, developing and delivering various products and services. Out of clinical practice for many years now he no longer practices medicine formally but retains a keen interest in helping people become more-well versions of themselves. He acts as a wellness coach and not as a medical practitioner today. Colin's approach and philosophy is based on empowerment: the notion that people only need a little help to make choices they usually already want to anyway - it's about respect and support rather than instruction or correction. Colin lives at the Vaal Dam with his wife Cathy. He spends time walking mountains, cycling, motorbike riding, kayaking, sailing and always looking for better & better balance.


  1. Sharanaaz Adams October 24, 2018 at 2:40 pm - Reply

    Thank you for the helpful information. I know someone personally who had skin cancer. He is bald and did not realize that he should be protecting his skin daily as even the walk from the parking lot to the mall / work etc. was damaging his skin.
    Many moisturisers and lotions have some level of SPF in it, best to go for the higher ones but we should at least check for it on the label before buying.

  2. Aurelia Forbes October 24, 2018 at 4:13 pm - Reply

    With the climate change, everything changes so I think that all skin colors must be wary and cover & protect yourself and lessen the risk of developing skin cancer. I think maybe one should try and use suntan lotion maybe mixed with your regular body lotion on your skin regularly not only when you are in the outdoors. The sun has a way of still getting you even if you walk to your car or wait on a bus or taxi during the day. Prevention is better than cure!

    • Dr Colin Burns October 29, 2018 at 7:16 am - Reply

      Thanks Aurelia. I agree that sun-screen should become a daily habit (like tooth brushing etc.). For example, I never complete my morning ablutions unless I have applied some SPF 15 to my face & neck at least.

  3. Cathy October 25, 2018 at 6:13 am - Reply

    When I was diagnosed as having Basil Cell Carcinoma (BCC) in numerous areas on my face, in my mid forties, I was unhappy this was happening way to early in my life. My dad suffers terribly with skin cancer too, both BCC and squamous cell. He has had numerous surgeries and skin grafts. I immediately avoided being in the sun and made every effort to stay indoors. Now I have Vit D deficiency which is not great for building strong bones. I guess one needs to find a balance and take in the glorious sunshine but using protective measures such as factor 50 sunblock and broad hats. Sunshine still makes me happy.

  4. Ermari Coetzee October 25, 2018 at 6:27 am - Reply

    SA = braai, beach and sunshine!
    But not (anymore) without sun protection. Rather have a bottle of sun block in your hand, than a bottle of beer … Because, we are also not (anymore) allowed to drink and drive…. Be sun-wise save.

  5. Palesa Mohasoane October 25, 2018 at 6:44 am - Reply

    • Examine your skin. Your doctor may look at your skin to determine whether your skin changes are likely to be skin cancer. …
    • Remove a sample of suspicious skin for testing (skin biopsy). Your doctor may remove the suspicious-looking skin for lab testing.
    • How do you know if a spot is skin cancer?
    • Use the “ABCDE rule” to look for some of the common signs of melanoma,
    • The ABCDE rule is another guide to the usual signs of melanoma. Be on the lookout and tell your doctor about spots that have any of the following features:
     A is for Asymmetry: One half of a mole or birthmark does not match the other.
     B is for Border: The edges are irregular, ragged, notched, or blurred.
     C is for Color: The colour is not the same all over and may include different shades of brown or black, or sometimes with patches of pink, red, white, or blue.
     D is for Diameter: The spot is larger than 6 millimetres across (about ¼ inch – the size of a pencil eraser), although melanomas can sometimes be smaller than this.
     E is for Evolving: The mole is changing in size, shape, or colour.
    Other warning signs are:
    • A sore that doesn’t heal
    • Spread of pigment from the border of a spot into surrounding skin
    • Redness or a new swelling beyond the border of the mole
    • Change in sensation, such as itchiness, tenderness, or pain
    • Change in the surface of a mole – scaliness, oozing, bleeding, or the appearance of a lump or bump
    • What happens if you leave skin cancer untreated?
    • It rarely spreads to other parts of the body. This type of skin cancer needs to be treated and has a high cure rate.
    • If left untreated, basal cell carcinomas can become quite large, cause disfigurement, and in rare cases, spread to other parts of the body and cause death.
    • When healthy moles disappears, the process is typically gradual. A disappearing mole may begin as a flat spot, gradually become raised, then get light, pale, and eventually disappear. However, when a mole does disappear suddenly, it may be due to melanoma or another type of skin cancer.

    • Dr Colin Burns October 29, 2018 at 7:14 am - Reply

      Thanks Palesa, for this very helpful, and very comprehensive, list of warning signs.

  6. Julia October 25, 2018 at 6:56 am - Reply

    Remember each time you thirst for something to drink, your skin needs a drink of sunscreen too. Sunscreen is like oxygen to the body you cant live without it

  7. Elna Duncan October 25, 2018 at 7:02 am - Reply

    I find this article very effective in what it want it’s readers to understand. It’s short, and to the point. It also let you keep on reading as there are some interesting facts hiding in between the ‘lesson’. And the best part – the writer knew what ‘buttons’ to push to get your attention and thinking the facts through.

  8. Lynn Lewis October 25, 2018 at 8:17 am - Reply

    With the raising costs, there is always an alternative for sunscreen. For 100% SPF coverage, use Zinc, available at most pharmacies. Just ensure that you rub it in well. I got mine for R23.00. There is a Wealthsmith in me!

  9. Sunette Swanepoel October 29, 2018 at 6:31 am - Reply

    Enjoy the sun, but don’t overdo it. It can take one tan to many to have a life time of problems with skin cancer.

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