Healthy Life

If you’re looking forward to developing a “healthy” bronzed complexion this summer, remember that contrary to what some believe, a tan is anything but healthy for your skin.

When someone gets back from a holiday, they’re often complimented on looking “tanned and healthy”. But did you know that a tan is simply a sign of damaged skin? This is scientifically and physiologically true; for your skin to develop a tanned appearance, cells must get damaged or even die.

And before you protest that you need extra exposure for vitamin D synthesis, rest assured that your daily activities provide more than sufficient exposure. If you have reasons why you can’t get normal exposure or you’re losing vitamin D abnormally, the answer is to adjust your diet and take supplements on the advice of a healthcare professional – not tanning!

Your skin never forgets

About a generation ago, people started to realise that they were developing skin cancers, decades later, in the exact areas they remember having had sun burns as children or young adults. This, unfortunately, is no coincidence. The DNA damage that occurs even from a single sunburn in childhood never really recovers. Your immune-protective mechanisms can keep this damaged DNA from forming cancers up to a certain time or age, and then invariably become less effective. That’s when the cancers start developing.

Dr Jeremy O’Kennedy, a dermatologist at Mediclinic Morningside, says that when he sees patients for the first time, he always imparts this crucial advice:

  • Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the world – and the fastest growing.
  • If you correct our statistics for population groups, South Africa probably has the highest incidence of skin cancer in the world.
  • The greatest predictor of skin cancer development is sun behaviour between ages 6-30 years.
  • There is no such thing as safe tanning or safe sunbed use for a pale skinned South African.
  • Melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancers are deadly, potentially disfiguring, and for the most part, preventable.
  • There is no greater accelerant for, and predictor, of the visible signs of ageing than tanning or sun over-exposure. If you want to look 40 when you’re 30, then tan!

How can I protect my skin?

You don’t have to resort to living in a dark room! Being sun and summer intelligent is easy:

  • Clothing is the ideal protection. Have a look at a part of your body that’s not exposed to the sun, that’s what your normal skin looks like. That’s how effective clothing is at photoprotection. That’s also why long-sleeve sports uniforms and swimsuits, and sunsuits for kids, are popular again, says Dr O’Kennedy.
  • Wear a broad-brimmed hat when you’re outside. Without a brim, your nose, ears, and lower lip are not protected and those are your cancer danger zones. Have hair, don’t care? Remember that you still have a very exposed crown and part-line area.
  • Apply sunscreen of at least 50 SPF, observing these rules:
  • Apply it daily for it to be preventative in the long run. Put your sunscreen next to your toothbrush so it becomes part of your automatic daily routine.
  • Apply to all exposed areas; face, ears, neck and hands.
  • Reapply every two hours you’re outside or straight after swimming.
  • Ignore warnings that sunscreen is harmful or full of “dangerous chemicals”. If you trust and wear your seatbelt, trust and wear sunscreen. The same science has approved both.
  • Seek shade.
  • Plan your swim/activity outside of 10am to 2pm, when the sun is at its hottest.
  • Never use a sunbed. Even a single session can increase your lifelong risk for melanoma 50-100 times.
  • See a dermatologist if you have what looks like a sore or red scaly spot that hasn’t healed in six weeks or a flat, coloured “freckle” getting wider. Get checked by a dermatologist anyway for a full-body skin examination and to see how much at risk you are, so you know how often you need to be seen in future.

“As dermatologists, we can prevent skin cancer. That’s our primary goal,” says Dr O’Kennedy. “But that is only possible if we see you!”

To find a skin specialist near you, visit