Scientists are warning surfers to protect themselves against the effects of the sun - as they are three times more likely than non-surfers to get the most serious form of skin cancer, melanoma. Spending long hours in water, exposed to the sun, makes them particularly susceptible.
Although the sun is 93 million miles away, it still has a profound effect on our outdoor activities. Its strength changes during the day, with midday being the worst time to be out on a surfboard. The safest times to surf are earlier in the morning and in the evening when the waves are often better anyway.
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What are the symptoms of skin cancer?
Ultraviolet radiation from the sun is the main cause of skin cancer, although UV light from tanning beds is also harmful. Even exposure to the sun during the winter can put you at risk. Non-melanoma skin cancers are curable when treated early enough.
Melanoma is the most serious form, accounting for three-quarters of all skin cancer deaths. If left untreated, it can spread to other organs and become difficult to control. The main warning sign is a change on the skin, such as a new mole, a change in an existing mole, or a new skin lesion.
It normally appears as a pigmented bump or patch, which can resemble a normal mole, but will commonly have a more irregular appearance. Doctors advise looking out for signs such as a mole with ragged edges and uneven colours, which can include black, brown, or red.
If an existing mole significantly increases in size and is larger than 6mm, or if it feels itchy and bleeds, these can also be warning signs. It's important to make an appointment to see your GP if you have any concerns, as melanoma can be life-changing.
How can surfers minimise the risks?
Although it can be enjoyable to surf at midday on a bright, sunny day, this is the most dangerous time and should be avoided when possible. The early morning and late afternoon are the best times, when the sun isn't as high in the sky and the wavelengths are coming at you at a different angle. This makes the effects of the sun less intense on your skin.
When the sun is directly above you at midday, bouncing off the waves, it penetrates your skin more deeply. Whatever time you're surfing, you need to take preventative measures to save your skin.
You'll have heard this advice as a kid many times, but it's still important: reapply your sunscreen many times throughout the day. For surfers, this is vital, because doctors say no sunscreen is 100% waterproof. It’s common sense that sun sprays, lotions and sticks will gradually be washed away by the sea.
It's also hard to apply sunscreen when your skin is wet. Experts advise applying it 15 to 20 minutes before getting in the water. Protecting your head and face when exposed to the sun is particularly important. A sunscreen stick often works better for surfers, as you can keep it in your shorts' pocket and quickly put it on your face, lips, ears and anywhere else that's exposed.
Does wearing a wetsuit protect you?
Many wetsuits are made from nylon or spandex. While these fabrics can protect against stinging jellyfish, they can also provide protection against the sun. They can be treated against UV light and will remain waterproof, flexible and comfortable.
When you’re getting ready and putting your wetsuit on, it's easy to imagine that you don't need sunscreen, but this couldn't be further from the truth. Don't forget to protect the exposed areas, especially your face. Never forget how easily your skin can be burnt.
A survey showed that female surfers were the worst offenders - according to the Centre for Disease Control, only 29.9% of females used sunscreen on their face and other areas of exposed skin when wearing a wetsuit.
This is despite the findings of a study of 1,350 surfers by Bond University in Australia, which shows their rate of skin cancers is greater than the national average. The rate of melanomas in Australia was 0.6%, but among surfers, it was 1.9%. This was described as a "significant finding".
The survey also found that the lighter the surfer's skin, the higher the risk of skin cancer. The study showed 23% of surfers with skin cancers had them on the face and 16% had them on the arms and back. Advice to surfers was cover up with sunscreen, vests and hats and go for regular skin examinations with your GP.
Surfers' forums suggest that if you've surfed regularly for more than 10 years, get your skin checked every six months by a dermatologist. If you have a mole or bump that you're even slightly concerned about, ask your GP if you need a biopsy.
When you're out of the water, as well as applying sunscreen, wear a hat that shades your neck and ears and protective sunglasses too. With the correct protection for your skin, you can enjoy surfing safely without the risks.
Carry on surfing!
If you follow expert advice, there is no reason why you can’t continue to enjoy life on the ocean wave – after all, there’s nothing else quite like it!
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