Page last updated at 00:01 GMT, Sunday, 18 January 2009

Skiers warned of skin cancer risk

By Jane Elliott
Health reporter, BBC News

Skiers in the alps
Skiers should wear protection

When you're packing for a day at the beach a bottle of high factor sun cream is likely to be found nestling between the towel and the bathers.

But when packing for a day on the ski-slopes many of us might not be so safety-conscious.

However, experts are warning that the risks of getting burnt on the slopes are as high as on our summer holidays, if not higher.

Dr Jonathan Bowling, consultant dermatologist at the Radcliffe Trust, Oxford, and London's Cadogan Clinic, said many skiers were unaware of the dangers they faced when going out without a high factor sun screen.

Sun damage

"You see people come back from ski holidays with panda eyes, where their skin has burnt. That is sun damage and can lead to cancer.

"Skiing is a fantastic sport and good for general fitness, but a lot of people forget the effect that the winter sun can have on their skin.

"When you're up a mountain, at altitude, your level of UV exposure is higher than at ground level, so you're soaking up the radiation.

Anyone skiing should treat the slopes like a beach
Dr Jonathan Bowling

"Normally features such as grass and trees absorb the UV, but when those features are covered in snow not only are they not absorbing the UV, the snow cover itself is bouncing the UV back at you."

Dr Bowling said that the numbers being treated for basal cell carcinomas - the most common sort of skin cancer - were increasing.

This sort of cancer is indicative of exposure to sun damage and more common among the elderly, but Dr Bowling said the age of those affected is getting younger and that a contributory factor is exposure to winter sun - including ski breaks.

"Basal cell carcinomas are much more common than malignant melanomas.

"They don't spread and are benign, but they do need to be treated and can't be left.

"And they are becoming a big problem because of sheer volume of numbers.

"We saw 1,000 people in our department in Oxford in 2004 and in 2008 we saw 1,000 in seven months - so they are increasing in numbers."

Beach care

He said a high factor sun-block is vital if heading for the slopes.

"Anyone skiing should treat the slopes like a beach and apply just as much, if not more sun protection to any exposed skin than they would when stretching out on a sun-lounger."

Each year in the UK, there are more than 65,000 new cases of non-melanoma skin cancer and more than 8,000 new cases of malignant melanoma
Non-melanoma is nearly always curable if caught early enough
Non-melanoma skin cancers include basal cell carcinoma (BCC).
These are usually slow growing and result from prolonged sunlight exposure over many years
BCC affects sun-exposed areas of the body.
It starts as a small painless lump, pink/brownish-grey in colour, with a smooth surface with blood vessels and a waxy or pearl-like border.
The lump grows, developing a central depression with rolled edges

Tony Turnbull, who works every winter as a ski-instructor, is well aware of the potential dangers of the strong sun as he was recently treated for a basal cell carcinoma on the forehead, which had to be removed.

He has been skiing every season for nearly 40 years and says he is always careful to protect his face towards the end of the season, when the sun is at its strongest.

But admits he has been sometimes less careful in the middle of the ski season where the sun danger is more deceptive.

"I have always applied sun cream when it was hot, but at the start of the season the sun is not strong enough to burn and I don't really cover up then.

"But the dangerous time is really in between those two times and I have not always been as careful then.

Cancer risk

"If I were to be put on the spot I could not say it (the cancer) was because of the skiing because most people wear a hat which comes down over the forehead.

"It could have been acquired on a beach somewhere whenever.

"But I am a ski instructor and I am aware of the dangers especially of reflected sun and we make our clients well aware of it and advise them to take precautions with sun cream and covering up."

Tony Turnbull
Tony got skin cancer

When customers book with his firm, Nordic Challenge UK, they are told in the pre-holiday literature about sun safety and advised to protect their skin with a high factor sun-screen and head protection.

"You do inevitably catch the sun while you're on the slopes, especially at the end of the season, so you have to take the risk of sun damage very seriously," he said.

Caroline Cerny, Cancer Research UK's health campaigns manager, agreed: "It may feel cold in the mountains but you can still get sunburnt very easily, even on cloudy days.

"At a high altitude UV rays are more intense and your skin can burn more quickly.

"Skiers and snowboarders should protect themselves by wearing wraparound sunglasses or goggles and regularly applying factor 15 plus sunscreen to any areas of bare skin.

"Be careful about areas like your chin, because snow can reflect UV rays back up at you."

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